Thursday, May 21, 2020

#142 / Earthly And Worldly (Two Worlds)

Pictured is Roger Berkowitz, who is the Founder and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities. The Hannah Arendt Center is associated with Bard College, which is located at Annandale-on-Hudson, in upstate New York. If you click on the following link, you will find that I have made it possible for you to read one of Roger Berkowitz' recent papers, "The Human Condition Today: The Challenge of Science."

I can't really claim to "hang out" with Berkowitz on any kind of regular basis (though I would certainly like to be able to make that claim). I do think I can legitimately assert that I have a kind of personal connection to him. Berkowitz presides over an online Virtual Reading Group on Hannah Arendt, which has regular, scheduled meetings, and which meetings I have frequently attended. Since I consider Hannah Arendt to be one of the most profoundly important thinkers of our modern time, and since Berkowitz is certainly one of the most important scholars who has engaged with Arendt's thinking, it is always a privilege to participate in the online discussions over which he presides. If you are willing to make a rather modest contribution to the Hannah Arendt Center, you can join the Virtual Reading Group. Consider this my encouragement for you to do just that!

If you click on the link to Berkowitz' article, provided in the first paragraph of this blog post, that click will take you right to the article. The article is only five and a half pages long, but be advised; it is not exactly what I would call "light reading." The article provides an excellent commentary - very brief, as I have just said - on one of Arendt's most important books, The Human Condition. You don't have to have read the book to be able to understand and profit from the article.

Anyone who has regularly read my postings to this blog (which I now call "We Live In A Political World") will probably remember that the blog used to be called, "Two Worlds." I have a theory, which I call my "Two Worlds Hypothesis," and that theory is briefly sketched at the top of the blog. I have always assumed that this "Two Worlds Hypothesis" is basically my own idea, since I have never come across it anywhere else - at least by that name. The Berkowitz article, when I read it not so long ago, made me see that a lot of what I have called the "Two Worlds Hypothesis" comes right out of Hannah Arendt. This is emphatically not discouraging to me. In fact, it makes me trust my judgment about the importance of the idea. 

If you are willing to spend some time with the "Two Worlds Hypothesis," please read on - and read the Berkowitz article on Arendt's The Human Condition. In what follows, I will comment on what Roger Berkowitz is saying about what Hannah Arendt is saying, and I will also say a few things myself!


Let me start by saying something about what I have called the "Two Worlds Hypothesis." 

It is my idea that we can best understand our situation in the world - what Arendt calls "the human condition" - by recognizing that we live, actually, not in a single, unified, world, but in "Two Worlds," simultaneously. As I am remembering it, I started thinking this when I realized that the word "law" has two, fundamentally different meanings.

The laws that apply in the physical world, the "World of Nature," are statements about what must and will happen. The Laws of Nature are perfectly descriptive, and you can't modify or repeal the Laws of Nature. The "Law of Gravity," for instance, or any other physical law, is not subject to modification or repeal. Thus, physical laws are statements that outline inevitabilities. The Natural World runs on these laws. We are finding this out, to our dismay, as we see the results of our emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. When you add CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the Earth heats up. There is no way around it; that's inevitable. The Laws of Nature describe just how this works, and our continuing release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is having huge impacts on the natural environment, all of which profoundly affects our own lives and affairs, in our own human world, in ways both large and small.

As a lawyer, I am quite attuned to the fact that human "laws" are not at all like the Law of Gravity. Human laws (same word) are completely different from the laws that operate in and govern the Natural World. Our human laws, above all, do not say what must and will happen. They tell us what we have decided we want to happen. Our human laws do not exemplify "inevitabilities," but make clear our "possibilities." They are not "descriptive," but "prescriptive." Human laws are the way we tell ourselves what we think we should do. They are also the result of a "political process." Click this link for my description of how we govern our human affairs by a formula that begins with "politics." 

Ultimately, we are completely dependent upon the World of Nature, into which we have been rather mysteriously born. If we ignore the laws that govern the World of Nature, we will pay a penalty, and we put our "Human World" in jeopardy whenever we do that. Global warming and climate change are making that abundantly clear. The effects of air pollution and water pollution on our human life are a couple of other examples. What "environmentalists" know (I am one) is that we are ultimately dependent on the World of Nature.

It is easy to forget our dependence on the Natural World, since we live most immediately (in fact almost entirely) in a "Political World," which is a world constructed by human activity, built by human choice and action. In this human world, most often called "human civilization," there is no "inevitability." Thus, our freedom to do "anything" within the world we most immediately inhabit makes us less senstive to the fact that we must ultimately depend upon the laws that govern the Natural World. 

The point of my "Two Worlds Hypothesis" is to remind us of that fact. It is imperative that we recognize that we do live in both of these worlds, simultaneously, even though our most immediate reference is to our own "Political World," a world that we construct for ourselves. I believe that this twofold nature of our existence is the defining mark of what Hannah Arendt calls "the Human Condition."

Most people who regularly read my blog probably skip over the statement that appears at the top of every post. That statement, however, in a very short space, does outline where I think we are: 

We live, simultaneously, in two different worlds. Ultimately, we live in the World of Nature, a world that we did not create and the world upon which all life depends. Most immediately, we inhabit a "human world" that we create ourselves. Because our human world is the result of our own choices and actions, we can say, quite properly, that we live, most immediately, in a “political world.” In this blog, I hope to explore the interaction of these two worlds that we call home.


In his article, "The Human Condition Today: The Challenge of Science," Roger Berkowitz analyzes and explains key portions of Hannah Arendt's wonderful book, The Human Condition. Arendt does not directly say that we live, simultaneously, in two different worlds, in a human, or "political world," and in the World of Nature, but she does say something that is almost the same thing. Here is how Berkowitz reports what Arendt does say: 

Humans are both earthly and worldly. To be humanly conditioned includes the fact that we are born and live on this earth. "The Earth," Arendt writes in her Prologue, "is the very quintessence of the human condition." At the same time, we humans are different from animals insofar as we transcend our earthly existence. She writes, "The human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere animal environment." 

When I read this statement in Berkowitz' article, I understood, immediately, that my past reading of The Human Condition must certainly have helped me, however unconsciously, develop my "Two Worlds" idea. Our "Earthly" existence is our life on Planet Earth - the Natural World upon which we ultimately depend. However, unlike every other "animal," we "transcend our earthly existence," and we are thus "Worldly," as well as "Earthly."  We live, in other words, not immediately in nature, on Earth, but in an artificial space - our human world - which "separates human existence from all mere animal environment." We are not bound, solely, by the Laws of Nature. We have separated ourselves from Nature, so that our existence is most immediately located within a world of our own making. Berkowitz puts it this way: 

Humans thus are at once created and creating. 

I would say, we live in "two worlds."

Where does "science" come into this equation? Berkowitz, commenting on what Arendt has said in her book, notes that:

The human condition is threatened by the historical advent of modern science, which promises to overcome the split between man's biological mortality and his worldly immortality. The danger posed by science is pictured in the event of the launch of Sputnik, which made palpable that the long-deferred dream of mastering the earth was finally within reach of the human species. It was now possible that humans could leave the earth and build new worlds. We now can build a purely artificial world in a spaceship or on an artificial planet, one in which every object—the water, the earth, and even our bodies—would be artificially constructed and humanly made. Sputnik shows that we have finally acquired the technological means to free ourselves from our earthly home and our biological limits. We are finally free to make our world and ourselves in our image rather than to exist in God's image.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is exactly what we, as humans, are tempted to do. However, can we actually do that? Not if my "Two Worlds Hypothesis" is correct. I contend that we are ultimately dependent on the World of Nature, which might also be called "The World God Made." 

Berkowitz seems to suggest it would be possible for us to do what we "want," or are tempted to do, and completely to replace our continued existence within the "World God Made" by a life located completely in a world that we construct ourselves. In other words, Berkowitz seems to suggest that we are not ultimately dependent on the World of Nature, as I would argue we are. Science lets us escape that dependency. Berkowitz quotes Ray Kurzweil to this effect: 

“It would appear that intelligence is more powerful than physics.... Once matter evolves into smart matter (matter fully saturated with intelligent processes), it can manipulate other matter and energy to do its bidding (through fully suitably powerful engineering).... Such a civilization will then overcome gravity and other cosmological forces, and engineer a universe it wants.”

As Berkowitz contemplates this claim that human beings can use their "intelligence" and "science" to escape their dependence on the World of Nature, that claim is shortened to a statement that "intelligence is more powerful than physics." This is a claim that our human "laws" can supercede the "laws" that govern the natural world. I think not!

Ray Kurzweil, a "futurist" who is waiting fror the "singularity," thinks it will be just wonderful when humans are able to subjugate the laws of physics, and the other laws that govern the Natural World, to the unlimited possibilities inherent in human creativity. Berkowitz notes that Arendt, in examining this possibility, argues that we need to think about whether this is really something we want to do: 

"The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians."

Berkowitz reports that Arendt had a name for the projects of human liberation so joyously heralded by Kurzweil and others. Arendt called it, "earth and world alienation." According to Berkowitz, Arendt "does not take a position in the argument." She just urges us all to "think what we are doing."

Sputnik did, as Arendt says, provide us with the idea that we could, as humans, live in a world completely of our own creation, "a purely artificial world in a spaceship or on an artificial planet, one in which every object—the water, the earth, and even our bodies—would be artificially constructed and humanly made."

But is this true? An "idea" is not a fact. It is my hypothesis that human beings are indeed both "created and creating," and any claim that our "creating" selves can somehow trump the fact that we are also "created," and thus subject to the laws that govern the World of Nature, is to deny the reality of our real situation - our "human condition."

If we continue to pursue the idea that we can ignore the laws that govern the Natural World (with Earth itself teaching us more, every day, that we can't), then our dreams of life on Mars, or somewhere else, will end in catastrophe for our human world and human civilization.

Arendt is definitely right in stating that we face "a political question of the first order," but we will get the wrong answer if we act as if all that matters is what we do in the world we build ourselves.

In the end, though we are both "Earthly" and "Worldly," as Arendt says, we ultimately live on the Earth, and that is our only home. We cannot create another Natural World, but must live under the laws that govern the one we have. It is upon the Earth, which we did not create, and into which were so mysteriously born, that we must ultimately depend. To assert otherwise, to suggest that we might be able to live in one world only - a world we create entirely ourselves - is to demonstrate that we are truly lost.

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