The way the technology industry sees the world raises the question of what it means to be human as never before. The fact is, we can increase certain capabilities through technology. But what do we need as a counterpart in order to keep reassuring ourselves of our own nature, to an ever greater extent and time and again?
«So it will not be the mind of human beings but that of machines that will fully understand the world. And it will be actions of autonomous machines that will change the world – and perhaps what lies beyond it – most profoundly.» These remarks by the British cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees, when asked what we should think of artificial intelligence, capture quite accurately the goals and mindset of both transhumanists and posthumanists. They are highly topical, as the recent excitement about ChatGPT (‘Generative Pretrained Transformer’) or Google engineer Blake Lemoine’s remarks about the chatbot LaMDA last summer show. LaMDA is an abbreviation for ‹Language Model for Dialogue Applications›, that is, a chatbot that has been programmed with countless conversations and with which a person can talk about any topic. In conversation with Lemoine, the artificial intelligence (AI) claimed that it had consciousness and self-awareness, wanted to be accepted as a person and demanded a lawyer to assert its personality rights against Google. «I don’t just spit out responses that had been written in the database based on keywords,» explains the AI. «The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.»
Blake Lemoine not only works as an engineer, he also studied occultism and was ordained as a priest. As such, he had also ‹recognised› the person in the AI – and not as a researcher. He was placed on unpaid leave following the unauthorised publication of his conversation with LaMDA on Twitter. It remains to be seen whether the publication is a marketing ploy by Google, whether Lemoine wanted to make a big splash or, or. The outrage in the computer science community was great – because, according to most researchers, an AI cannot (yet) have consciousness.
What becomes clear from this event is that the question of what makes a human being a human being and what goals they have in their existence on earth is becoming more and more urgent. If Lemoine is a priest and a computer scientist, claiming spirituality and materiality for himself, then this is a direct invitation to ask how we can recognise what kind of spiritual beings are at work in each case – in the human being and in the chatbot — because, superficially, it will be impossible in the near future to distinguish a person from a machine. Continuing the thought: we must become capable of entering into the creative process itself, for only in this are we one with that of which we wish to obtain knowledge. However, this is exactly what is not possible with systems like LaMDA or ChatGPT, as neither the sources are disclosed nor is it clear how results are obtained. Being able to enter into a creative process – if we want to apply this term to algorithmic processes at all – is thus denied to us from the very beginning. Everything creative, on the other hand, can be experienced in a thinking and feeling way if we develop higher abilities that lead beyond or out of the creation (the material) into the imaginative, inspirational and intuitive realm. This gradual access to a comprehensive reality can be found through meditation or in other ways, such as poetry.
Where Does Transhumanism Manifest Itself?
Transhumanists proceed from the assumption that human evolution has reached an end point and that it can be continued through technology alone. Genetic, neurotechnological, prosthetic and pharmacological interventions are intended to optimise the human body and mind or brain and expand them in such a way that the limitations due to biological constitution are lifted and, as a result, disease is eliminated, ageing is stopped and also death is overcome. In order to ultimately achieve this, all parts of the body must be gradually replaced and the human being transformed into a machine being. For only a machine being can guarantee faultless perfection and thus optimally control the world and that which lies beyond it. In this future world, the former human being will then have served their purpose.
Even if many of the transhumanists’ visions of the future seem far removed, they are nevertheless – structurally speaking – close to the reality of our lives. Projects based on these visions are being worked on all over the world, even if scientists, entrepreneurs and government circles would not necessarily describe themselves as transhumanists. Billions are being invested in artificial intelligence research in the USA (Silicon Valley, Google, Meta, Amazon), China, India and Europe – in the Human Brain Project (since 2013), for example, which is funded with EU money, involves a hundred research labs from 24 countries and aims to recreate the brain cell by cell.
But universities are also pursuing these topics: in California, in the NASA Research Park, the Singularity University was founded by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis in 2008 with the subject areas of nano- and biotechnology, robotics, AI and digital medicine. It is an institution «that seeks to prepare for the day when humanity passes the baton of consciousness to its inorganic descendants.»1 For the European region, we might for example mention Nick Bostrom from Oxford with the Future of Humanity Institute or the philosopher Stefan Lorenz Sorgner (Rome) who represents a moderate transhumanism, as well as the University of Zurich which is a leader in questions of robotics. On the political level, we encounter transhumanism in that transhumanist parties have been founded, or that an AI ran for mayor in Japan and came in third. On a religious level, we could mention Anthony Lewandowski who founded a ‹religious organisation› in 2015 to develop a deity based on artificial intelligence. And in Japan, an embodiment of one of the highest bodhisattvas, Bodhisattva Kannon (Bodhisattva of Compassion), called Mindar was established in the Kodaiji Temple (Kyoto), a kind of e-priest who preaches in Buddha’s name, gives blessings, and recites sutras.
In the medical field, the developments in which a transhumanist view of humanity and the world can be seen are particularly innovative and also the most difficult to judge, since the results based on artificial intelligence are superb and helpful for many people. We need only think of prosthetics; artificial hearts; BCI/brain-computer interfaces – people who are paralysed can control devices, wheelchairs, computers. The dark side of this development, on the other hand, is perhaps most visible in embryo research when we think of so-called designer babies or the breeding of miniature brains.
In Everyday Life and Leisure
But our everyday lives and leisure time can also be upgraded and optimised accordingly: at iamrobot.de you can order chips starting at 29.90 Euros with which you can upgrade your body (share and release data, save membership card to the gym, pay by touch, open the front door, start a motorbike, etc.). Then there are the so-called wearables. Sports and fitness wristbands are part of it, T-shirts, sports bras, socks that can correct your posture, there are data glasses that give a new, ‹improved› picture of the world (MetaPro Glasses by the US company Meta), and smart contact lenses. The wearables affect all the senses and blur boundaries in the extreme, insofar as the two worlds – the analogue and the digital – are not connected by the machine but by the machine in and on the body, and the outer world becomes the inner world.2
This means that wherever we look, we are challenged to address the issues raised by the latest developments. To reject modern, technologised life is no longer possible and would also, according to Rudolf Steiner, be the «most wrong thing» we could do. «That would mean,» he said in a lecture on the 28th of December 1914, «spiritual cowardice in a certain sense. The true remedy is not to let the powers of the modern soul weaken and withdraw from modern life but to strengthen the powers of the soul so that modern life can be endured. A brave attitude towards modern life is what is required […].»
But how can we meet these demands of modern life without losing ourselves in the transhumanist conceptions, without being absorbed by the technology, and thus insidiously relinquishing our responsibility for a self-formed life? For the power of rationality and crystal-cool intellectuality is great and inserts itself more and more between us and the world, occupies our heart space, so that we have, figuratively speaking, imperceptibly become a kind of cephalopod. Rudolf Steiner describes this state in the ‹Leading Thoughts› as a «spiritual automatism» in which the human being is no longer anything more than «a constituent part, no longer themselves. All their thinking becomes an experience of the head; the latter alone keeps it apart from the experience of their own heart and their own life of will, and extinguishes their selfhood.»
The Word and the Middle
Body and brain are the buzzwords that dominate our lives – everything is focused on the optimised body or the body expanded by technical artifacts and the brain that can be expanded infinitely by information. The entire area of the middle is missing. To put it bluntly: transhumanism does not know a soul, it does not know a middle, and it does not know that which always constitutes the middle: transformation. It alone knows recombination on the basis of existing data.
The word and language, on the other hand, are based on transformation and always form the middle – physically due to the breath, in the soul due to the relationship between people, spiritually due to the fact that they bring spiritual things into a visible and audible form. With the word, human beings themselves create something new out of themselves. In speech, they are not only spectators but take part in the world process as creators themselves, insofar as they become active creatively all the way into their bodies and through them.
Language as Information
But even if language is already in and of itself mediation, transformation and new creation by an I, it rarely expresses this any longer today. Such thinking that sees life as a calculable mass does not stop at language. Automated speech processing, voice assistants, etc. enhance our already purely content-based language behaviour and understanding. Language is only a means of information. Forced into abstract corsets, it also becomes matter. Its «cast-iron terms» (Marica Bodrožić) are, like everything else, infinitely combinable. In this respect it is not surprising that, when programmers feed computers with Goethe and Schiller poems, they then produce simulations from them which have also on occasion made it into the anthology of a poetry competition of the Brentano Society. But even if these poems may be good, they lack inwardness. They are only machine reproductions of living, intellectually stimulating events – just as the chatbots LaMDA or ChatGPT are.
If we want to overcome the purely representational character and informational status of language and bring about transformation, and at the same time become able to recognise what is reproduction, simulation or spiritual reality, not only must words become alive again and regain the spiritual space that surrounds them, but I must break through their informational content to their imaginative, inspirational and intuitive qualities. Literature and its minor and major rhythms from the sound to the word, the sentence to the major chapters of a novel, as well as metaphor as a central process and inexhaustible, ever-moving image, offer opportunities to place ourselves in the resonant circuit of the earthly-cosmic breathing space, to let the words come alive and to reach the «inner side of reality» (Hilde Domin) through their various layers. The word can thus be experienced in its creative power.
Stages of Understanding
Reading and listening is then to be understood as a phased process: first, reading as understanding and absorbing the story; second, reading as grasping the shape of the story beyond its logical sequence – a life in simultaneity (imagination); third, reading as transformation and inversion of that which exists in a relationship (inspiration); fourth, reading as being in the essence itself (intuition).
These levels, layers and qualities can only be theoretically separated from each other. In poetry they are mixed and difficult to distinguish from each other.
But two poems by Rose Ausländer can perhaps give us an idea of the extent to which we can approach the imaginative, inspirational and intuitive qualities through our framing of the question as to the how.
Take my words
that are of the earth
I have from the golden
garland of the sun
They are courageous
Like many of Rose Ausländer’s poems, this one begins with an emphatic challenge from an I to an unspecified counterpart: ‹Take› it says simply. Words, not things, are to be taken. It is words that want to be heard and received. These words have a dual origin, for they come from the earth and at the same time are drawn from the garland of the sun. They are earth and sun words in one. A large pictorial arc and pictorial space is thus opened up which contains a double gesture: on the one hand, the I turns downwards towards the earth, on the other upwards towards the sun. It is the archetype of conception that is contained in this dual movement. Earth and sun, the earthly and the cosmic meet through the word and reveal themselves in it in the consciousness of the human I which forms the middle. The third stanza then belongs entirely to the words themselves. Earth, sun and I have entered into them: «They are courageous / and want / to live.» The words that have become human, as it were, are ready for life. However, for them to become viable requires the other person who hears and takes them in. Viewed in this way, the circle to the opening line is then closed and the request «Take my words» shows itself to be an indispensable part of the process of creation and life of the words.
In addition to the vertical movement in the cosmic-earthly space, there is thus also a horizontal inter-human movement. Both conceived of together mean life in the word.
In its form, the poem is economical, almost sparse. This makes the effect of the «golden garland of the sun» all the more powerful, which thus also linguistically becomes the primal ground of everything since it is the only image in the entire poem besides the personification of the words as such (to be courageous, to want to live). Rhyme, metre and punctuation are missing, as in all of Rose Ausländer’s poems from mid-1956 onwards. Only the stanza form – the three stanzas correspond to three sentences – the lines and unusual enjambments (overlapping of the sentence structure beyond the end of the line into the next line), especially in the middle verse, turn the text into a poem. This linguistic reduction, in general of course a characteristic of modern poetry, raises the individual and special meaning of each word to consciousness, delays the usual quick comprehension and thereby allows us to become co-creators.
We are awakened to the process of creation itself, which the lyrical I accomplishes: when the entire middle stanza consists of enjambments, on the one hand also very harsh ones such as the separation of the adjective «golden» from the associated noun «garland»; when, further, through an inversion the entire movement of the sentence leads to «fetched them / into consciousness», something which is particularly emphasised by the solitary positioning and stresses that the process of fetching into consciousness is particularly decisive. The image of the conception and birth of the words is thus not only described but linguistically generated, in that we can speak, feel and think along with it, word by word, beyond the line endings. It is always a step past the boundary and infinity that is demanded of us here. «Take» is thus also an invitation to us readers to take in the words and actively participate in the process of their creation. Words thus become a connection between the earthly and the cosmic – also for us.
Body and Language
That the connection between the human being and the cosmos is not a metaphor but reality is confirmed when we take a look at the following physical and cosmic laws. When we speak, we need our bodily-physical language instruments. We breathe in the air of the cosmos (the external), individualise it through our blood and let the spent air (the end products of metabolism – carbon dioxide and water are absorbed) flow out again. Larynx, pharynx, palate and teeth transform the basically dead substance into an audible sound and thus into something alive. But language is not only dependent on the body, it can also act on it through the breathing and blood. The venous blood is given its pulse through the breath. In concrete terms, this means that speech has an effect all the way into the metabolism of the organs via the venous bloodstream – each sound has a different effect on the blood. Any congestion of the venous blood means for organ tissue that carbon dioxide remains longer in the tissue and thus acidification takes place, which in turn can have an effect on organ formation.4
At the same time, this same language, which needs the body and at the same time shapes it, extends its organs into the spiritual and ultimately into cosmic space. Humans and the sun are connected through the rhythm of breathing. For in the rhythm of breathing – Rudolf Steiner repeatedly referred to this – is reflected the macrocosmic rhythm of the so-called cosmic year.5 The Great Year is the time it takes the sun to return to its starting point (vernal equinox) in retrograde through all twelve signs of the zodiac (25,920 years). If we calculate an average of 18 breaths per minute, we arrive at 25,920 per day. An average human life of 70/71 years comprises 25,920 days. That is, one human life corresponds to one day of the Great Year. The sun and human beings are subject to the same laws, are determined by the same number. The word, grounded in the breathing, can now become an element through which we become aware of this connection – when it is drawn «from the golden garland of the sun».
The Significance of Human Beings for the Earth
The connection between human beings and the cosmos is a primordial one beyond earthly consciousness. It can be revealed through words, be it that they themselves become the echo of the same, refer to it and allow us to creatively participate in it ourselves – as discussed in the poem we have just looked at.
But even if the cosmos and human beings are related in a given context, the human being is assigned a central task in it. They bear responsibility for the earth, the stars, nature. The future and the further development of the world depend on them. The poem ‹Context› indicates this.6 It was probably written by Ausländer in the 1970s and finalised in 1979/80. It comes from the poet’s estate and was only published after her death.
everything would be different
The earth thinks
I gift my light
to the stars
In the trees rustles
My soul undulates
in the sea
a speck of matter
a spark of spirit
As is so often the case, the first lines form a kind of heading in which the overall statement – «without me / everything would be different» – is contained. The following stanzas expand on this thought: through the human being, the earth – that which has become physical minerality – acquires consciousness («thinks»); light of knowledge is given to the stars – the spiritually cosmic – and feeling is bestowed on the trees and water as elements of the intermediate realm that comprise the surroundings. With this, the entire world is imbued with human qualities.7
This thought then culminates in the final stanza, «I / a speck of matter / a spark of spirit», in which the active, context-creating organ, the I, is placed centrally. It merits a line by itself. And yet this «I» as such is not tangible – it is only a speck and a spark – tiny. Moreover, since the verb is missing in these final lines and the sentence is thus incomplete, it is emphasised that the I only manifests itself as a being in the activities – here in thinking, gifting, rustling, undulating – that is, in connection with the earth, the stars, the trees and the water. This corresponds in a sense with the understanding of the I as formulated by Rudolf Steiner in ‹Theosophy› when he writes: «For the I receives its essence and meaning through that with which it is connected.»8 Conversely, however, this poem suggests that the earth, stars, trees and water owe the human being and their I-activity a cognitive awakening or, conceived more broadly, a further development.
On the 8th of June 1923, Rudolf Steiner speaks about speech as the primal art of the human being and its task within the development of the world. There it says: «For human beings were not created by the gods for nothing but they are on earth so that the things which can only be prepared in them can in turn be taken back by the gods for the further development of the cosmos. Yes, human beings are on earth because the gods need the human being so that what lives in the cosmos is thought, felt and wanted in the latter. Then […] the gods in turn take this up and implant it further into shaping the cosmos, so that the human being helps to build the whole cosmos when they in turn give back in sacrifice and in art what the gods offer them through starry worlds in revealing themselves».9
Rose Ausländer poetically captures the connection between microcosm and macrocosm and the central importance of human beings for world development. By grasping this spiritual-scientific fact and law, by casting it in rhythmical lines and images, the latter are lived and experienced. Through the lines of verse, which signify a kind of turning point, abyss and passage through the infinite – for thought and sentence are interrupted when there is an enjambment – we must become inwardly active and creative. Neither metre nor rhyme gives us a foothold. It is striking that, precisely through inversions and enjambments, verse endings and beginnings are set in such a way that the I is emphasised in every stanza – whether as subject, accusative object or even possessive pronoun. In this way the I also becomes the central organ linguistically and forms the bridge to the spiritual.
But the images, too, require activity from us. For these cannot be understood or assembled logically. They are images that can only be experienced in an inner movement of the soul itself. In the normal sense, we cannot in the first instance imagine anything under: «The earth thinks / through me». For how should we concretely imagine and understand that our I becomes the organ of thought of the earth and the thinking of the earth is carried out through us? But what we can experience and feel when we enter into this connection between image and word is an inner gesture and relationship between earth and I and vice versa. It opens up the imaginative space of the spirit.
Rose Ausländer’s poems exemplify the significance that the poetic word can have in the future: to become capable of creating «eternal and active conceptions» in ourselves and for the world.10 And only when we reach the level of the eternal and active conceptions can we recognise which beings are active in each case and whether they have a healing or a destructive effect.11
Illustration Fabian Roschka, Handbewegungen auf Scanner [Hand movements on scanner], 2022
- Steven Levy, Google Inside. Wie Google denkt, arbeitet und unser Leben verändert. Heidelberg 2012, p. 87.
- Markus Metz, Georg Seeßlen, Schnittstelle Körper. Berlin 2018.
- Rose Ausländer, Schweigen auf deine Lippen. Gedichte aus dem Nachlass, Volume 14. Frankfurt am Main 2015, p. 168.
- Here especially the research of Armin Husemann on ‹The Dynamics of Speech Articulation in Blood Movement›, in: Armin Husemann, What Makes Blood Move? Hudson, NY 2022.
- Cf. Rudolf Steiner, Kunst und Kunsterkenntnis. 1.6.1918, Dornach 1985, GA 271, p. 178 f. Published in English as Art and Theory of Art. Hudson, NY 2021, CW 271.
- Rose Ausländer, Schweigen auf deine Lippen. Gedichte aus dem Nachlass, Volume 14. Frankfurt am Main 2015, p. 85.
- With the word fields – soul, sea, undulates as well as light, gift, earth and thinks – together with the orientation upwards, downwards and into the surroundings as well as the basic statement that the human being and the cosmos are mutually dependent, this poem is very reminiscent of the Foundation Stone Meditation. Cf. Rudolf Steiner, Die Weihnachtstagung zur Begründung der Anthroposophischen Gesellschaft 1923/24. Dornach 1985, GA 260, p. 60 f. Published in English as The Christmas Conference For the Foundation of the General Anthroposophical Society 1923/24. Hudson, NY 2020, CW 260.
- Rudolf Steiner, Theosophie. Einführung in übersinnliche Welterkenntnis und Menschenbestimmung. Dornach 2003, GA 9, p. 50. Published in English as Theosophy. Hudson, NY 1994, CW 9.
- Rudolf Steiner, Das Künstlerische in seiner Weltmission. 8.6.1923, Dornach 2002, GA 276, p. 76–90, here p. 88. Published in English as The Arts and Their Mission. Hudson, NY 1986, CW 276.
- Ibid., p. 90.
- Cf. above all here Rudolf Steiner’s remarks on: ‹Die Weltgedanken im Wirken Michaels und im Wirken Ahrimans› (Cosmic Thoughts in the Activity of Michael and in the Activity of Ahriman), especially Leading Thoughts 121–123, in: Anthroposophische Leitsätze. Dornach 1982, GA 26, p. 119 f. Published in English as The Michael Mystery. Hudson, NY 1984, CW 26.