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Our Fugitive Senses and Sensibilities

November 3rd, 2021 | 14 min read

By Tara Thieke

Throughout the archaeological, biological, and literary records of homo sapiens emerges a common trait: the species best capable of lifting eyes and mind heavenward has not found this earth to be enough. However murkily understood, the great mounds of earth and stone dragged around by our ancestors witness to an innate impulse to create rituals and places of worship pointing to some other reality We could perhaps be called “Homo duo mundos,” or: “man of two worlds”. From the Dreaming to the Gothic cathedral, we are a species with a foot here and a foot… there.

That history has enough conflict and resolutions to keep an historian busy many lifetimes. Yet this history also appears uniform in its common valuation of the relationship between the transcendent and the earth, the need for stories which acknowledge that relationship, and the recognition of a creator. Despite the many iterations of these beliefs, which have vitally significant differences, their commonality appears overarching when contrasted to the flattened worldviews which have come to dominate our mental framework in modernity. The revolution of cleverness has brought strange tools, tools which make the Buddhist monk, the Catholic monk, and the shaman all more akin to one another than to a 21st century student attending a comparative religion Zoom seminar.

This revolution began at a date unknown though the Apple in the Garden is a fairly good place to start and has the convenience of symbolic continuity up to the bitten apple logo of the Apple corporation. This revolution has come in many guises: as gift-bearer, de-mystifier, magic-worker, and tyrant. It has promised a new model of man, a striver free of the shackles of the past. While he is descended from those who used the stars to make tools he declines to worry about their disappearance from common sight. There was this earth and none other, and we owed it to ourselves to make it a paradise.

But there are multiple ways of interpreting sapiens. Are we clever or wise? Are we defined by our tools aiming to conquer the stars, or by our quest for communion with them? If the machinations of the ancients in stacking stones is notable, is it no less notable why they did so?

The cleavage of cleverness from wonder has wrought a long diminishment of our understanding of the complexity of homo sapiens. Wonder gives birth to many fuzzy sensibilities which resist quantification and thus tend to wither under utilitarian problem-solving. When the question is how to build bigger and higher, then our sensibilities stemming from wonder begin to slow us down. The pursuit of beauty, questions of virtue ethics — they are not quickly measurable and so there is no place for them in profit or power-maximizing frameworks.

The denial of these measurement-resisting qualities leaves us with an infinitely poorer metric for happiness. Our advertisement-drenched society cannot promise us the Good and so our products seem to claim our loyalty solely by their escalating attempts to shock and awe our bodily senses. Nothing on a billboard means anything, but there sure is a lot of whatever it is: bigger meals, stronger granite countertops, louder explosions, faster wireless.

Being a whole rather than a part means our instinct to build temples remains, only now it is shorn of reverence for that which the temple houses. In this state of befuddlement we spend billions of dollars shooting a few people in rockets into the outer atmosphere for a few minutes. They will see no angels. They don’t know how.

The loss of angels is no trivial matter. The place in the heart once reserved for angels, for meaning, for God has been bulldozed over by a new priesthood that does not recognize that there is no neutrality. They do not realize that it is not so easy to remove gods, because the truth is there was not one place in the heart but rather the whole of our being was permeated and transformed by the perception that matter had meaning. It is not a gene which can be plucked out or hypnotized into inoffensiveness via a smartphone.

Rather, this ongoing revolution of cleverness is forced to offer louder and more frantic distractions because we are not a collection of parts but a living whole. By denying one aspect of our being the whole is changed; as the rates of self-acknowledged happiness and wellness testify, the change seems to be for the worse. The great dystopian writers could sense these changes many decades ago, realizing that in the quest for efficiency and knowledge something significant was absent: what was it all for? They posited some potential answers and the leaders of the revolution tut-tutted. It’s not about that and will never come to that, Silicon Valley said, as they scratched “Soma” off the list of names for new biotech companies.

What does it come to?

The reduced understanding of homo sapiens as strivers for maximized power and efficiency is at the heart of our discontent, but this is not the sort of amusing error in a comedy of manners. The flattened interpretation of our being leads to a worldview which cannot ask itself questions about ends because it is so consumed with means, and this is the root of manifold horrors.

With the power summoned from the deep we can make the mineral kingdom dance at our command, play with embryos of animals and man, dive in and out of DNA, and weave webs of wires and satellites round the globe to bring thoughts together quick as lightning. Where magic ends and science begins is no longer clear (if it ever was), for from CERN to nanoparticles it’s beyond the layman’s capacity to understand.

The common motivation through all this is a fanatical belief that if something can be done it should be done (“fanatical” is a strong word but what else should we call those who mix human embryos with pigs because it is possible?) No other principle seems at work except the manic obsession with accumulating more power for the sake of power.

With a clap of your hands you may turn on the light; with a push of your pointer finger you set in motion a wave of action which will deliver a bit of plastic made halfway around the globe to your doorstep. All these earthly miracles will be advertised and sold through a world you spend ever more hours in: little black holes never more than a few feet from your fingers and eyes.

As the hands and eyes are drawn into the screen, the body grows heavy with the lack of movement. The screen, and all the labor for its upkeep, has slipped between us and our own bodies. We may have been dreaming of the heavens for millennia, but the dream imbued our own reality with a fundamental unity between matter and meaning. Legs were made for walking and we walked. Now, to stay on the healthy side of cause-and-effect, we must replace activities which had been effortlessly intertwined with daily life with artificial efforts often unavailable to the masses. Is this neighborhood walkable, a wealthy person can afford to ask. To exercise the function of our own bodies is now a luxury in a world stuffed with magic devices.

The revolution has denied the value of wonder or communion with a transcendent reality, but it offers us a substitute virtual one. God is no more, but we can be Player One in a new, updated model. Unfortunately it requires a strange sacrifice: our relation to the given reality we were born into. Attention to this world interferes with attention to the virtual alternative. Despite ever-escalating ingenious ways of capturing our time, this artificial reality and the mechanomorphic worldview it is built upon are not content to stay put. It wishes to cross through the screen and claim this world as well.

This is not too surprising if wonder is not incidental but rather fundamental to our identity. The revolution promised that after our sensibility of the heavens was diminished we would appreciate this world as our only home and greatly improve upon it. But homo duos mundos cannot live this way: if our tool-making capabilities are no longer limited by a sense of reverence towards the reality the tools are made for, and become ends in themselves, then we lose the sense of direction which is vital for our well-being. In this way a new home comes with the promise of restoration, it only requires the increasing loss of our bodily senses. Once matter is denied meaning, we unavoidably set out on a path which eventually denies matter as well.

Life in the Liberated Land

The promised land must become an artificial one as the current landscape has become disorienting in the extreme. We experience more stimulation in seconds than our ancestors did in a lifetime. Millennia ago the ancients built temples with an eye towards Venus, waiting years for its light to shine through the roof in Newgrange for but a day. As for ourselves, we have no reason to wait for anything. There is no cause for patience or hope, and so we make decisions based not upon the Good, or the True, or the Beautiful, but in terms of accumulating power and stimulation.

The result is a virtual world which colonizes the earth with towers, wires, satellites and screens, with glowing billboards and a network of lights to blot out reminders of the heavens. Bitcoin factories, quite real, churn through this-worldly resources to produce digital currency. Child miners delve and bleed to bring up minerals to make the devices ever smaller, ever faster.…… the entire world is offered up to those who can afford to fully reap the pleasures these tools sell.

The peasants of old enmeshed their seasons and hours with another reality. The liturgical year, though, did not deconstruct night and day. The quilted pattern of saint days and feasts did not quash the rhythms of daily life. St. John the Baptist’s Day was the traditional feast day associated with Midsummer. There were bonfires and water immersions while herbs like St. John’s Wort were harvested. The Church, having hollowed the old pagan customs, maintained a balance which drew our hearts to the heavens while allowing our hands to work meaningfully in this world for as long as God let us dwell here. Our attention to the reality of earth and the reality of heaven was fully baptized.

What does midsummer or midwinter’s day mean to the Silicon Valley developer working in a temperature-controlled facility at any and all hours, awaiting the hope of eventual uploading to an artificial world with virtual immortality? The setting of the sun becomes a luxury, the content of a weekend flight to Iceland, a glimpse of extremes experienced as a tasting tray of life’s delights disconnected from a greater whole. The pilgrim perceived new things which allowed both deeper love of this world and the next. The tourist, as Walker Percy saw many decades ago, can taste. But communion is more than taste.

Tasting is what it offers the lucky; what does midsummer in the advertised utopia mean to the gas station cashier or warehouse worker who enjoys the occasional DoorDash delivery but for whom Iceland is, as it was to her ancestors, a foreign country in the full sense of the word? Will she see the lingering twilight over the Bay, or will the presence of millions of LEDs neuter it? A few pale words in gray etched into the calendar, a note on the Weather app: today is the longest day of the year. It may as well be the shortest, for the digital reality consumes so much attention that before she knows it, it is winter.

The 20th-century Catholic polemicist Solange Hertz wrote, “with night turned into day by electricity, the natural rhythms of alternating darkness and light, with all the God-given regularity and order dependent on them, are profoundly disrupted. There is no rank of society which does not suffer from pathological arrhythmia.” The interruptions of technology have indeed become an avalanche and this “pathological arrhythmia” exhausts mind, body, and soul. With the stars obscured, the nights no longer lit by the moon but by daylight-imitating blue streetlights, the body’s connection to the natural world is frayed. The spiritual loss coincides with this. The removal of the transcendent second world attacks both our senses and our sensibilities, leaving us with an emotional addiction to the very devices responsible for our confusion.

All feasts become movable and then they become disposable. Historian Jacque Barzun noted Protestants went to church once a week for services while Catholics, possessing a different supernatural sensibility, went to Church at all hours to pray. To the outsider what could be a more marked difference of belief: we give our attention and bodily presence to what we believe is true. It seems after we decided we could pray anywhere we prayed nowhere. When places and times did not have meaning it didn’t much matter what we did with our time. The church is shuttered, the midnight vigil left behind for Zoom meetings and television Mass.

With the world liberated from the heavens ever more disordered, we turn to the artificial world for relief. It does not want to share our attention. Data-mining allows it to offer us greater dreams, replacements for a midsummer’s twilight obscured by light pollution.

There are hints of the forms these dreams will take in the mumbled reports issued from think tanks, reports which are translated into banalities by the media. Yet what is discernible is that the next steps of the revolution are anything but banal. It seems we are getting closer to something. The devices do get smaller. Hydrogels do promise to be “exciting.” Our homes are becoming “smart,” and food really does spoil in the fridge if Google has an outage.

The screen rises and the old world falls. Our shared archetypal and symbolic language, our oldest vernacular inheritance, is dying. The orthodoxies of the cyber world, which could perhaps be called “user agreements,” hide their expectations of us. We sail through the door between our world and the virtual as if nothing changes but a movement of our eyes; but everything changes. The log-in screen’s ease of access puts sense and sensibility to sleep as we enter an increasingly permanent state of semi-hypnosis.

This trance is the most accessible product of our technological revolutions. It can be interrupted when interfaces are upgraded and people lament old graphics the way we miss childhood homes. We develop muscle memories with a touchpad in the same way we subconsciously avoid a creaky floorboard. But neophilia is the key to capturing attention, and so in the end even the changes we lament keep us logging on and tuning in.

As the screen becomes both the source of discontent and of relief, its demands grow and the world outside is slowly consumed. And as there is less and less to go outside for, the screen becomes the sole source of salvation.

The glowing screen, the greatest achievement of the revolution of cleverness, offers salvation to people deprived of meaning and now matter. It comes in the form of an alternative reality but at the cost of participation in this one. Its demands grow greater and we cannot conceive of a destination. Where is the screen’s Beatific vision? Or does the obsession with means and rejection of ends imply that permanent residency in the augmented reality is to be reduced to a cycle of consume-desire-consume?

What is Orthodoxy to do? Swipe left, keep scrolling? How can Orthodoxy trump convenience? The Gospel tells us to be prepared to lose our mothers, our fathers, our children, our lives. How do we lose a place we’ve never walked in, a place that is truly nowhere? What do we do when the program wants a place in our physical reality, when the efficiency of a system is so highly prized that the concerns of your bodily limits are deemed irrelevant? It’s more efficient to monitor your blood sugar levels internally. We must not hinder the demands of the program even if it blurs the boundaries between inner and outer.

From the Internet of Things we reach the proposed Internet of Bodies. We are invited (though behind the invitation is the tense rhetoric of “inevitability”) to become a new type of person: homo machina. What do the demands of the new metaphysics mean for people who never had time to understand the Internet of Things, let alone have a say in it? If the Internet of Things demanded our world and our homes, what price will the Internet of Bodies extract? What does it mean to become a machine? These questions are smothered by the trumpets of the new conveniences and the conversation moves on.

Seeking Re-Orientation

The GPS eroded knowledge of our roads and now we are up to our necks in a strange new no-where. Where is true north now? It is unsurprising that millions testify to a crisis of anxiety. Our psyche is disoriented by the rapid fluctuations of this new model that aims to make us utterly dependent upon its mediation of reality. If we are lost without a phone we are truly lost indeed. Can we enter a Church if it is not displayed on Google Maps? What if the app owners delete Orthodoxy, or the battery fails?

Faith is an unwelcome sojourner in a virtual landscape increasingly hostile to its presence. But comfort! That is not a new development. The virtual world emerged in the same world which received the Incarnation and then saw the Crucifixion. The great contradiction remains: hope lives in the heart of loss. For it is in neither this world of suffering, illness, and death, nor in the promised virtual immortality, that our salvation lies. We may make it to Mars, but still we will take Golgotha with us. We may upload our brains into digital libraries, but still the Cross will linger between the stacks.

He has set upon us a conscience which is both a gift and responsibility regardless of nature, nurture, or machine. Whether we are in a gulag or gilded cage, whether we can move our legs or whether the pattern of development has rendered them inert, the essential things are the same. If the sun is blocked out or the stars, still the eternal law is written in our hearts.

What will happen to this world under the techno-utopians is beyond any one person’s control, but sapiens retains an implication of more than cleverness. The wisdom which perceives the otherness of the transcendent cannot be defined away.

This perception is a gift. Despite all the attempts of machines and programs to obscure matter and meaning, the ability to perceive them remains. We can turn off the SmartLights during Advent and accept the night. We can celebrate St. John the Baptist’s feast day with flowers and fire. We can recite the Nicene creed and teach our children hymns. We can learn when each flower blooms and to which saint they belong. We can learn how particulars, not just abstractions, give glory to God.

Matter has meaning and the attempt to deny it is really the ancient attempt to escape our own limits under the misguided belief that we’re less, not more, with them. The techno-utopians reduce their understanding of our nature because the implication we cannot control everything is frightening.Yes, it is. The world is full of sorrow and death.

Sensibility sits beside the grieving and understands. Our senses echo the pain of being human. But they also call us through the dark night to communion with God’s face which can never be replicated by an AI program. Life is not a cold laboratory, but a living romance. The transcendent reality we longed for came to us and conquered death. When we perceive that truth we see how our longing for meaning was a compass. No matter how close the techno-utopians come to turning homo sapiens into homo machina, the truth is they cannot truly hide the heavens from our sight. In their hearts they, too, dream of seeing God past the stars.

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