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The Computer and the Incarnation Ahriman

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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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The Computer and the Incarnation Ahriman

On-line since: 28th April, 2017

1. Introduction

The computer is transforming our society and our way of life. At first confined to the central offices of large corporations, scientific research institutions, and government agencies, computers are finding widespread application in automobiles, appliances, and small businesses. In 1980, about 400,000 “personal computers” were sold, bringing the computer as such into many of our lives, more directly than the ubiquitous computer-generated bill.

Many people have grown concerned about the changes resulting from the spread of computers. While few would maintain that having armies of clerks adding columns of figures is better (for the clerks or for the rest of us) than having computers do the work, people complain that they are being dehumanized, reduced to a number or a machine, being made servants of inhuman masters, and in general feeling their lives changed in ways they cannot control and do not like. While computers give us welcome relief from drudgery, they have other effects which we do not welcome.

Norbert Wiener took up this theme as early as 1948. [1] He described the unprecedented rapidity of the changes that science and technology as a whole have brought to society, and emphasized the key role played by cybernetics in bringing this about in its later stages. He also described some of the evil consequences of the changes, but seemed to feel that the evil resided in the social aspect of the new situation, in the uses to which we are putting our new powers.

Since Wiener's time, the field known as “artificial intelligence,” in which one tries to make computers mimic human intelligence, has been established and grown. What started out as dumb, fast machines have developed into automatons which are increasingly able to exhibit human-like characteristics. Joseph Weizenbaum, who devised a program to carry on an intimate conversation in English with a person, reported [2] his dismay when people took what he imagined to be a clever experiment completely seriously. For example, “A number of practicing psychiatrists seriously believed the DOCTOR computer program would grow into a nearly complete automatic form of psychotherapy.” [3] Amidst other important observations and insights, Weizenbaum worried about how, as the machines grow more capable, we imagine ourselves less capable, more like machines, and grow more committed to a mindlessly “scientistic” [4] approach to the world.

Some people have the idea that things with the computer are getting out of control, that the machines are acquiring a kind of autonomy. “In summarizing her recent survey of 50 computer owners, Sherry Turkle, an associate professor of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said consumers liked the feeling of power associated with programming a computer. 'When you program a computer, you feel a great deal of control and mastery,' she said. 'People begin with a desire to make the computer do something, and end up being absorbed by its doing something to them,' she said.” [5] This experience of having the tables turned on one is being repeated at many levels and in many contexts.

This brings us to the idea that the computer is no ordinary machine, that it can wield a power over us that no mere tool could. What is it about the computer that makes it special?

To me this is no abstract question. After programming computers at an advanced level for many years and watching what happened to me and to others who developed intimate relationships with the machines, I confronted this question with a sense of personal urgency and in a troubled mood. Most of the experiences I had were not discussed by those who worked with me; indeed, in the atmosphere that attaches itself to computers, certain things about the machines are nearly unthinkable, though nonetheless true. I had no desire to engage in a romantic reaction against the machines, or to struggle against rationality in any way. What troubled me was that I felt my reasoning powers being boxed in and limited, and I found it difficult to be as rational about all of my experience as I wished to be. I felt the need for more understanding, not less, and began to realize that the computer itself had something to do with my lack of intellectual penetration.

What happened to me many other people have also experienced in varying degrees. Specifically, I noticed that my thinking became more refined and exact, able to carry out extensive logical analyses with facility, but at the same time more superficial and less tolerant of ambiguity or conflicting points of view. My feeling life somehow gradually detached itself from the rest of me. The feelings that were closer to me grew flat and grey; they lost their strength and color, and correspondingly played a less prominent role in my life. The feelings that were farther from me, on the other hand, grew stronger and cruder; they lost much of their human quality and modulation. Finally, in the life of the will, I developed a tremendous capacity for application to the solution of problems connected with the computer, and ability for sustained intellectual concentration far above average, so long as the focus of concentration was the computer. In other areas, I lost will power, and what I had took on an obsessive character. Many other things happened to me as well, but the transformations I have just described are of a general nature, widely experienced, and will serve for the present.

The computer is special because of its relation to the spiritual being here called “Ahriman.” The name Ahriman comes from the Zoroastrian god of darkness, the being eternally opposed to the god of light, who is called Ormazd. In Rudolf Steiner's conception, Ahriman is opposed to Lucifer (literally, light-vessel), and the two of them together are opposed by the redeeming power of the Christ. Steiner's thought is formally similar to the one advanced by Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics, in which evil is pictured as having the form of mutually contradictory excessive opposites, both of which are opposed by a good which stands at the mean of the two evils. The general idea, which it is the point of this book to explain in detail, is that the world has been coming increasingly under the sway of this being Ahriman in the course of the last two millennia, with an ever increasing pace in recent centuries, and that the computer represents the vanguard of this development.

It took me a long time to see what relevance such a seemingly abstract and religious concept could have to the manifest realities of electronic technology. The key point in seeing the relevance is to recognize that the division we make between religion and science is a false one, and that the subject matter of both religion and science suffer because, for example, we do not know how to be rational and observant about perfectly objective phenomena which we categorize as religious. As soon as we actively investigate such a subject as the relation between a spiritual being and electronic technology, or even just attempt to penetrate to the core of the technology while leaving none of the facts out of account, it is possible to learn how to be scientific and objective about a wider range of phenomena than is generally thought open to such investigation. This research leads to such results as are described in the later sections of this book, in which I will attempt to make clear the exact nature of the relation between the computer and the being Ahriman.

[1] Norbert Wiener: Cybernetics, 1948; The Human Use of Human Beings, 1950-1954

[2] Joseph Weizenbaum: Computer Power and Human Reason, San Francisco, 1975

[3] ibid. , p. 5

[4] “With science itself there can be no quarrel. Scientism is another matter. Whereas science is positive, contenting itself with reporting what it discovers, scientism is negative. It goes beyond the actual findings of science to deny that other approaches to knowledge are valid and other truths true In doing so it deserts science in favor of metaphysics — bad metaphysics, as it happens, for as the contention that there are no truths save those of science is not itself a scientific truth, in affirming it scientism contradicts itself.” Huston Smith: Forgotten Truth, New York, 1976

[5] Michael de Courey Hinds: “New Fixture in the Home: The Computer”, New York Times, June 4, 1981, p. C1

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