Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Green Brain, Part I

The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!" (John 16:32-33)

A man approaches the Teacher. “Teacher,” says he, “I have left home many times. I have traveled the world on business. On my vacations I have offered my services to restoration efforts in the Caribbean and public health work in Kenya. I love my neighbor and contribute to a microfinance network that helps women build small businesses. I believe that qualifies me to speak the truth.”

“You have done well,” the Teacher answers. “But you lack one thing. Sell all you have and let the poor come and help you.”

The man shook his head and walked away, disappointed. He had expected a more serious answer.

“What is technology?” asked another.

“In literal terms, technology is the logos of all craft. As logos, technology is also mind.”

“How can you say that tools have a mind?”

“Many cells comprise a mind. Many tools comprise a technology.”

“But teacher, technology cannot think. At least not yet. The technology itself is mindless. It is what we do with it that counts.”

“Is that so? There was once a very brilliant scientist. He believed that he could do with modern physics what no one had ever done before: bring the power of heaven down to earth. The rest of the world might have laughed him off as the fool he was, were it not for one thing. The Enemy was rumored to be doing the same. Because we were at war, it became imperative to get heaven on our side, so the government did what governments have always done: they gave this scientist a high place, a mountain in the desert. They also gave him leave to assemble the greatest minds of his time. From far and wide, the most brilliant minds converged on this mountain, where they ate, drank, smoked, and worked together. They were consumed by the intensity and enormity of their task, and driven by a need to save the world from the Enemy. The head scientist, especially, was stressed, and he smoked all the time, burning cigarette after cigarette as he pondered the secrets of celestial fire. From below the mountain, the people saw flashes of light and heard great booms and wondered what manner of salvation was being wrought there. Finally, the scientist was successful. He built a tiny star, all encased in metal. He took it down the mountain and set it on a scaffold like the hanged man. He planned to detonate in the hour just before dawn. The day was the Feast of the Transfiguration. That night, it rained and thundered. The men wondered if lightening would detonate their star. The scientist himself was nearly wasted away by this time, having smoked so much that now his six foot frame weighed only 115 pounds. His wife lay in a drunken stupor back up the mountain. Just before dawn, the rain stopped, and the desert, watered and refreshed, exhaled new life. Everywhere were frogs. The air was filled with their voices, just as once Egypt was filled with the voices of frogs when God told Pharaoh to let them go.

“At that moment, the scientist opened the star. There was an explosion such as the world has never seen. It vaporized the frogs and turned the desert sands to glass, for the power of heaven had indeed been brought to earth. And this scientist, practically wasted away in his obsession, now declared himself a god. ‘I am Shiva,’ he said, ‘bringer of death.’ We do not know whether, like Shiva, he danced.

“Now tell me, if you think that technology was but a mindless tool, when all the greatest minds of the time had worked so hard, in some cases risking their lives unto death, to build it.”

“It was necessary to bring the Enemy into submission. That so-called star saved millions of Allied lives. And besides, you did not mention that after that work was done, the scientist spent the rest of his life harnessing that same power for peace.”

“Can the fires of destruction ever be turned for peace? Can a man who does not hear the songs of frogs ever be trusted to preserve life? For what purpose does a mind exist?”

“To discover the secrets of the universe.”

“Did our scientist discover them, or was he possessed?”

At that, the second man, too, walked away. He was too old to spend this much time in word play, for he had great works to do.

It is said that the same technology that got us into our present mess can get us out. I wonder. For so long technology has been set against nature that it has ceased to be natural.

“There you go again,” says another listener. “You are giving a bunch a tools moral authority. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Mankind would never have built guns had he no intention to kill.

The video below shows this story in its operatic version. On the eve of the detonation, J. Robert Oppenheimer sings John Donne's "Batter my heart, three person'd God."

You are correct that minds are ambiguous. Life, environment and temperament create mindsets. Mindsets create the structures that people mistake for reality for what we shrug our shoulders and say are “just the way things are.”

“It’s just human nature,” they say, when what they really mean is “this is the way this place and time has conditioned human nature.”

As a child growing up in a protestant church, I always imagined that when Martin Luther wrestled with salvation by works, he was really wrestling with the mindset of early capitalism, whose unintended consequences he was already able to glimmer, even if he could not fully map the extent of it. The sale of indulgences turned salvation into an indulgence for those who could afford it. Indulgences financed the erection of vast buildings and complexes that set the stage for the rampant materialism that now threatens to destroy the planet for its gratification. Today’s McMansion is nothing other than a retooled St. Peter’s Basilica of the successful, high achieving self. Today’s high priced health care offers salvation to the rich and death to the poor. Of course, Martin Luther could not see all that. All that he knew was that something was very wrong.

There is nothing that money and technology cannot solve, says the truism of this world. With that in mind, let us ponder how American know how addresses Mother Earth.

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