Can Humans Survive Automation?
- At 17 May 2005
- medium Opinion
Speech to the Manning Clark House conference
Science and Ethics: Can homo sapiens survive?
Academy of Science, Canberra, 17 May 2005
Let me begin with an anecdote. A young man studying engineering at university said
to a young women studying sociology: ‘The social sciences are useless; only maths
and engineering and the hard sciences are useful. Anyone studying social sciences is
doing so because they are not clever enough to study maths’.
This claim is almost too easy to rebut, yet it is very widespread among influential
sections of the population (including, sadly, many of those studying the social
sciences and the humanities).
Of course we could ask our young engineer if he would care to read something by
Kant or Weber or Foucault and still maintain that only thick people enrol in arts
degrees. But I suspect he would respond by saying ‘Well, I could read them, but what
would be the point?’. If he did attempt to read them he would probably say they are
not hard just unnecessarily opaque and their opacity is a cover for their irrelevance.
This belief that the arts are not important is in fact one that has never held more sway.
Governments have decided that more resources should be directed at those areas of
study which can prove themselves by generating a return, and here they mean an
economic return. Even within the sciences, the insistence that CSIRO divisions should
earn 30 per cent of their income from outside sources has imposed the logic of the
market on scientific endeavour. I will suggest that the logic of the market is hostile to
most of the things that make us truly human.
Modern economics, by which I mean neoclassical economics, is not just the
handmaiden of the market but provides an ideological justification for the supremacy
of the sciences and its products. It is not just the vanity or insecurity of neoclassical
economists that made them want to emulate the hard sciences (so-called physics-envy), but a genuine belief that science and technology are the keys to economic
What lies behind the belief in the superiority of the hard sciences and the irrelevance
of the social sciences and humanities? It seems to me that the astonishing impact of
technological advance, whose benefits have been spread in large measure by the
market, has transformed humans in ways that have made us less able to understand
The assertion of the power of technology and the belief in the hard sciences, as put by
our young engineer, is a defence of a particular form of rationality, mechanical
rationality. This rationality was a product of the Enlightenment, indeed it defined the
Enlightenment. Many assert that the emergence of Enlightenment thinking was the
most fundamental advance for humanity; and of course, in some respects, it was.
After three of four centuries, however, Enlightenment thinking is holding us back
from further progress. In affluent societies such as ours, it is only through philosophy,
literature, psychology and aesthetics that humans can make progress.
As this suggests I am interpreting automation to mean the products of science in
general; so I am posing the question of whether humans can survive the scientific
revolution. By ‘survival’ I do not mean physical survival but the prospects that fully
realised human beings will flourish. For in affluent societies there is now the
opportunity for the mass of people to finally live out their potential. But it seems that
humans today, despite all of the assertions about individualism, are in fact more like
automatons than ever. The market – its values, its constraints, its dominance by
powerful corporations, its appropriation of culture – is increasingly denying us true
autonomy, and without autonomy we cannot be truly human.
I am conscious that I am conflating the advancement of science with the spread of the
market, but I am suggesting that a particular form of rationality underlies them both
(although, of course, many scientists hold personal values contrary to those of the
The Enlightenment marked the disjunction between two forms of knowledge. One
form of knowledge is cognitive and deductive and involves drawing conclusions
based on observations about the external world. This form of knowledge lends itself
to transmission from one person to another through well-established rules. It is the
form of knowledge that underpins scientific discourse (and economics).
The other form of knowing is based on direct or unmediated experience of the world,
an intuition that something exists or is true. It is not possible for one person to
transmit this form of knowledge to another, although talking or writing about it may
remind the other of a similar experience or sense. It is evocative rather than
analytical. Nor is it possible to test this form of knowledge against independently
observed facts drawn from the external world.
Dualism refers to the rigid separation of the two forms of knowledge and the way in
which internalisation of this separation determines how we interpret the world and
understand our relationship to it. Our inner relationship to the world around us is not
innate. Since the scientific-industrial revolution intuitive knowledge has been
trivialised and dismissed, yet only intuitively can we appreciate the numinous
character of the natural environment.
In addition, dualism has accorded one particular form of rationality – instrumental
rationality – a privileged place. For both of these reasons – the rejection of intuitive
knowledge and adherence to instrumental rationality – conventional economics is
intrinsically hostile to environmentalism. The worldview of environmentalism arises
from the reintegration of the two forms of knowledge so that reason is informed by
intuitive knowledge, and the duality that divides our inner and outer worlds is
In Europe before the sixteenth century the dominant worldview was organic. People
mostly lived in coherent, whole communities in which spiritual and material
phenomena were not clearly differentiated. Individual needs were not so much
subordinated to those of the community but found expression through those of the
This is not to deny that these societies were often exploitative and sometimes
impoverished, but only to make the point that the way people experienced themselves
in the world was radically different from the way we experience ourselves today. The
organic view of the world was reflected in people’s innermost perceptions of
themselves and their relationship with their environment. Morris Berman has written:
The view of nature that predominated in the West down to the eve of the
Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and
clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this
environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging (Berman, 1981,
The separation of self, with its detached intellect, that came with the European
Enlightenment was unimaginable to those who lived a ‘participating consciousness’.
Participating consciousness is the sense within the observing subject that the act of
observation is not divorced from the observed, that the external world is alive and can
be known through unmediated experience in a way different from that arising from
deliberative reflection. It encompasses the sense that the transformation of the
external world is also a transformation of the world within.
So for those possessed of participating consciousness, mind participates in the world
instead of functioning as a detached organ of perception and cognition. Traditionally,
indigenous people have understood that the support the natural world provides to their
survival must be repaid by nurturing and recreating the land each day. In this way
there is a mutually sustaining cycle between humans and their natural world just as
there is for each creature that plays its own unique role in the reproduction of the
cosmic cycle. In modern guise, this is perhaps the central insight of ecology.
The European Enlightenment opened the way for the scientific revolution and
subsequent industrial revolution. The psychological impact of this transition has been
at least as important as the transformation it has wrought on the physical world.
Writing in the seventeenth century, Descartes imagined a rigid division between mind
and matter according to which ‘there is nothing included in the concept of body that
belongs to the mind; and nothing in that of mind that belongs to the body’. As this
view spread, reinforced by scientific progress and material advance and the retreat of
religious dogma, humans began to understand themselves in a wholly new way.
Fritjof Capra captures it thus:
The Cartesian division between mind and matter has … taught us to be aware
of ourselves as isolated egos existing ‘inside’ our bodies… (Capra, 1975, p.45).
This was a truly radical idea, one that lay at the heart of the transition to the modern
mode of self-awareness. It was also a great step towards the alienation of our
conscious minds from our deeper natures and the sundering of our essential
relationship with the natural world.
The triumph of rationalism, then, had a profound impact on how people as
psychological beings were constructed. The estrangement between the religious and
the physical worlds was also an estrangement within people between their inner and
the outer worlds. This rupture saw the gradual victory of ‘reason’ over ‘religion’ in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the point where scientists, the embodiment
of the powers of reason, were elevated to the position of saviours of the human race, a
role previously reserved for the guardians of the spiritual world.
The division between an outer reality and a numinous inner world was unquestionably
one of the most far-reaching philosophical transitions of human history. It changed
fundamentally the way we think about ourselves and our place on the Earth.
In some vital ways the transition was liberating. It enabled the objective world to be
seen and understood with a clarity hitherto impossible. It banished irrational,
magical, primitive beliefs from the material world of production and commerce,
beliefs that had constrained the understanding of the physical world and its
technological potential. The liberating ideas of the Enlightenment permitted the
fantastic material benefits of the scientific-industrial revolution in Europe, which, in a
brief 200 years, has transformed our outer worlds in ways truly unimaginable.
This transformation has, of course, been a mixed blessing. The tragedy is that the
flourishing of our outer worlds has been accompanied by the impoverishment of our
inner worlds. While the separation of the objective and subjective worlds has seen the
triumph of reason, it has also witnessed the denigration and trivialisation of our
subjective reality. The distinction has gone beyond one simply of facilitating
analytical processes applied to the material environment; it is one in which the
objective world has been elevated to the plane of absolute truth, while the subjective world, our inner reality, is dismissed as inferior, unscientific and, above all, irrational.
We do not learn to recognise, develop and trust our inner worlds but to place our faith
in the outer reality by striving for material riches and socially accepted forms of
Thus, the story of the modern epoch is one of progressive disenchantment, a transition
that involved a profound psychological loss. The world apprehended by non-participating consciousness becomes describable in terms of matter and motion, the
twin conceptual pillars of the new ‘mechanical philosophy’. Non-participating
consciousness is characterised by the rigid separation of the observer and the
observed, subject and object.
The psychology of non-participation and the self-definition it reflects are reproduced
and reinforced every day. We are bombarded by the ideology of science, the notion
that all is knowable, that human development is a process of progressive discovery of
a finitely knowable universe. Every time we learn of a new discovery it suggests that
a bit more of the unknown becomes known to us and is thereby conquered. We have
even begun to unlock the mysteries of space, conquering it with space travel,
extending the physical boundaries of the known, as though by looking ever further
outward we can avoid the pressure to look inward.
This science of knowing is a science of control; the unknown is outside of us and
therefore a threat. Our non-participation in the world is doubly reinforced by the
activities that dominate our societies – work whose aim is to put objects into the
market, and recreation. Watching television is the ultimate act of non-participation.
The world is taken away, moulded, packaged and made ‘more exciting’ and then
served up behind a glass screen.
All of this was driven by the rise of commerce and the specific form of rationality that
accompanied it. The rationality of economics and commerce is in no sense timeless
and universal. As the early sociologist Max Weber (1968, p. 376) argued, the essence
of modern capitalism lies in its peculiar form of rationality. Market exchange and
wage labour are the pillars of capitalism; market exchange is of its essence rational in
the sense that all commitments other than pure economic self-interest are irrelevant.
The material progress of the scientific-industrial revolution was built on the idea of
calculability. Weber stressed the extraordinary importance of calculability as the basis
for efficient capital accounting and thus profit making. Rational decision-making
depends wholly on the ability to calculate outcomes. There can be no place for
The rationality of our economic world, therefore, is peculiar to the economic system
that emerged with the scientific-industrial revolution. The dominance of instrumental
rationality has seen a psychological shift of historic importance, one with no
precedent in the history of humankind. The most important of our daily activities lost
their sacred character; as a result, our inner worlds were further banished from our
conscious minds and trivialised to the point where most of us are reluctant to discuss
our inner worlds publicly and even to acknowledge them to ourselves. This is not to
decry the value of rationality as such, but to recognise its specific form in Western
society and, above all, to point to its crippling effects when it is allowed to dominate
The new consciousness of non-participation transformed the way we see and
understand the natural environment. If we view ourselves as radically separate from it,
Nature takes on value only to the extent that it satisfies human needs and desires. This
is the explicit assumption of orthodox economics in which ‘goods’ have value only to
the extent that people are willing to trade them in the marketplace. The natural
environment becomes a collection of more or less tradable resources.
The separation of our selves as beings from the natural world has meant that our
attitudes to the environment are wholly different from those of peoples whose cultures
and modes of awareness grew out of the land. Since the Industrial Revolution in
Europe, European attitudes have been built on a one-way relationship of exploitation
in which we have unilaterally assumed a moral right to take from the land without a
reciprocal obligation to nurture it. For if the earth is already dead we cannot kill it.
Modern economics remains trapped in the mechanical view of the world that was
propagated especially by nineteenth-century science. The mechanical view is
founded on the analytical process, that is, the process in which the object of study is
broken down into its constituent parts in order to understand how it works. Here we
simply observe that the essence of the human, let alone their relationship to the world
around them, cannot be found by analysing our constituent parts, even if these parts
are assembled into an extraordinarily complex model. For the essence lies in its
wholeness. Goethe expressed it precisely:
To docket living things past any doubt
You cancel first the living spirit out:
The parts lie in the hollow of your hand,
You only lack the living link you banned.
Moreover, modern science is not the rational, value-free science it seems to be but is
actually driven by a powerful emotional need, the need to be detached from one’s
feelings. (The same can be said of economics.) The retreat to the intellect is an
emotional response to fear. Morris Berman stresses this in his discussion of academic
history, observing that the Scientific Revolution saw an intellectual rejection of the
sensual, visceral appreciation of the world.
Yet if the truth be told, it is not that the emotional life got repressed, but that
one particular emotion triumphed above all the rest. “Emotionless” activity,
eg., scientific and academic detachment, is driven by a very definite emotion,
viz. the craving for psychological and emotional security (Berman, 1990, pp.
Perhaps it is the imposition of this psychic distance between the intellectual and the
visceral that for most people makes economics so boring, the ‘dismal science’ in
which sensual life itself is banished. Economics texts display a form of obsessive
rationality in which the feeling natures of ‘economic agents’ is suppressed and a deep
split is posited between their intellectual and emotional selves. Strict instrumental
rationality and denial of feelings is held up as the most laudable quality of economic
analysis, captured in the idea of ‘rigour’. The stress on rigour helps to explain why the
profession is a largely male preserve, for the emotions of modern patriarchy – the
need to control, competitiveness, the pursuit of omniscience and obsessive rationality
– are also those of modern economics.
This leads to some bizarre positions. On the vital question of how to approach climate
change, the most influential economist is William Nordhaus whose explicit position is
that we should decide to reduce greenhouse gas emissions only if cost-benefit analysis
or an optimisation model concludes that the net benefits to humans are positive, where
the relevant effects are essentially impacts on economic output (Nordhaus and Yang,
1996). It is a very short step from this intellectual framework to the policy and
political conclusion that measures to protect the environment are not worthwhile, a
step taken by Danish ‘skeptic’ Bjorn Lomborg (2001). Indeed, depending on how the
numbers turn out, it would be entirely consistent with this mode of analysis to
conclude that the best course of action is to accelerate the emission of greenhouse
gases so that we may enjoy the net benefits of a hotter planet sooner.
The essential distortion of the modern economists’ way of inventing the world lies in
the very construction of the individual and from there the relationship of the
individual to the world. The human agent is reduced to a repository of instrumentalist
desires which generate a series of actions. These actions – buying and selling goods –
result in quanta of happiness that are deposited in the place occupied by the
individual. Hopelessly trapped in the world of things, economics imagines that the
translation of the activities of the outside world into inwardly experienced human
welfare – an intensely subtle and obscure process – is effected by one simple factor,
the quantity of goods consumed.
The tragedy of modern economics is not so much that it operates purely at the level of
instrumental rationality but that it reinforces society’s official insistence on the
validity of instrumental rationality to the exclusion of other forms of rationality and
other modes of awareness. Yet no matter how insistently this form of rationality is
thrust upon the world by orthodox economists, businessmen and neo-liberal policy
makers, the symbolic world cannot be suppressed.
We are each pre-rational, rational and trans-rational. That is, despite a desire to run
our lives according to the rules of rationality alone, and no matter how skeptical we
are about manifestations of the numinous world, each of us is capable of radical
intuitive insight and states of higher consciousness that can forever transform our
understanding of the world.
The wellspring of environmentalism is intuitive knowledge. It is impossible to accept
instrumentalist rationality and be an environmentalist at the same time and this is why
in recent years the environment movement has provided a most serious challenge to
the political hegemony of orthodox economics.
If there is a central philosophical position that is articulated by the environment
movement, it is its opposition to anthropocentrism, the idea that the world revolves
around humans, and that natural resources are valuable because they serve our needs.
This instrumentalist idea is so fundamental to conventional economics that it is never
raised as an issue. But within the environment movement there is a strong feeling that
sentient beings other than humans, the ecosystems of which they are a part, and the
whole of Gaia have value for their own sake.
Yet conservationists have often had recourse to the instrumentalist and
anthropocentric arguments of the economists. They have emphasized the impact of
the degradation of the natural environment on our accustomed material living
standards. They have called for protection of biodiversity for the useful drugs it may
yield, and point to the decline in GDP that ozone depletion and climate change may
cause. They have even put a dollar value on the ecosystems of the world. At times,
there may be good political reasons for fighting on the terrain of the economists, but
environmentalism at a deeper level challenges the ethical principles that underlie
prevailing attitudes to the natural world. It suggests our current predicament is due
fundamentally to a set of beliefs about ourselves and the world that is hostile to the
natural environment and therefore, if we could only recognise it, hostile to ourselves.
This emerging ethic – one that centres on our duty to act as custodians of the Earth’s
resources – has arisen not out of processes of rational analysis, but out of an
understanding of how we feel about ourselves and our relationship to the world.
Indeed, after more than two centuries of domination by the rationalist obsession, this
new ethic is reaffirming the validity of acting according to the imperatives of our
feeling natures as well as listening to the arguments of the intellect. There is a mode
of awareness beyond the rational that can reveal knowledge at a level inaccessible to
even the most brilliant rational mind, a mode of awareness available to all of us and
which provides the essential motive for the global environment movement. The
cultivation of such a ‘discerning mysticism’ is, of course, anathema to economics.
We have become accustomed to believing that science and technology will solve our
problems. But in affluent countries our problems are no longer ones of material
deficiency. Quite the opposite. Industrialised countries are now beset by the
sicknesses of affluence – overwork, overconsumption, massive waste, psychological
disorders, social disintegration and meaninglessness. To be sure, a minority remains
poor. But if we cannot solve poverty with our prevailing levels of wealth, you would
have to be naïve to believe that more economic growth will do it. We do not lack the
ability to eliminate poverty, only the willingness. And the richer we become the less
willing we appear to be to do what is needed.
I think perhaps this is why at this conference we have not asked ourselves whether
science and technology can solve our problems, but whether humans can survive
more science and technology. We must also ask whether humans can survive more
For it is the excessive emphasis on these aspects of the outer world that has seen the
shrivelling up, the trivialisation of our inner worlds, with the effect of robbing us of a
whole world of knowledge that could guide us to a better future. There are early signs
that we are at last beginning to throw off the obsession with rationality that the
Enlightenment brought and to seek out a balance between intuitive and rational
knowledge, between the inner and the outer, between intrinsic value and extrinsic
The European Enlightenment saw scientific rationality abolish the pre-rational world
of magic and superstition; but it also jettisoned the sense that the world around us is
alive and intentioned, a sense that permitted humans to participate in the world in a
way that scientific consciousness denies us.
Of course, some spiritual traditions speak of enlightenment in a radical different way.
In Buddhism, enlightenment describes a radical insight into the essence of things, a
sudden realisation that we are each no more than a fragment of a unified cosmos or
single consciousness. The enlightened one discards the straightjacket imposed by
rationality, understanding that it is a form of consciousness that, for all of its benefits,
is confined to the outside world, the phenomenal world, and that to see into the deeper
nature of things we need to transcend that rationality.
So the European Enlightenment that prefigured the victory of science over religion
and superstition is now itself being superseded by another, all-encompassing,
enlightenment, one that understands that rationality and its products in science is only
a partial way to approach human consciousness. Understanding this, and living from
that understanding, defines the path to a true human flourishing.
1 Executive Director, The Australia Institute. Much of this paper is based on Hamilton (2002).
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Brubaker, Rogers, 1984. The Limits to Rationality. George Allen and Unwin, London.
Capra, Fritjof, 1975, The Tao of Physics. Shambhala, Berkeley.
Hamilton, Clive, 2002, ‘Dualism and Sustainability’, Ecological Economics Vol. 42,
2002, pp. 89-99
Lomborg, Bjorn, 2001. The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of
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Nordhaus, William and Yang, Zili, 1996, A regional dynamic general equilibrium
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