Decline or Ascent of the West?

Decline or Ascent of the West: Abandoned Building

Civilization is the end phase of culture, said Oswald Spengler once in his famous Decline of the West. He meant that in the phase of civilization, people can no longer create new and profound ideas but live in the framework established by the ideas and values created in the previous ages.

This is why civilization is essentially a stage of decay because, as Nietzsche put it, what lives, either develops or decays. It cannot stagnate, i.e., keep its highly developed constitution, without this constitution transforming into something better or worse.

Written at the beginning of the 20th century, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, as Spengler’s work was originally titled for publication in the ’20 of that century, considered that the 20th century was a period in which Western civilization based on the Christian worldview, would necessarily be replaced by another worldview coming from outside of itself (i.e., from the East).

The West would not be able to defend itself against this process, especially because it would no longer fight for its own values, in which it ceased to believe. A phase of decadence had taken sway of it, in which people preferred welfare and security against any other spiritual value.

Although civilization is also characterized by creativity, this creativity regards mainly the material sphere: large buildings and highways, sophisticated devices, or well-organized bureaucratic states are only a few such creations. 

History showed that, in the past, such civilizations, although they could survive for a long time, were ultimately replaced by younger cultures that penetrated them from outside. Be that as it may, what we see around us today is a never-before-seen flourishing of Western civilization.

Indeed, one constantly hears about the relativism of values, the criticism of the past, or the spread of atheism. An atmosphere of Fin de siècle or anything goes in which people are rather skeptical about every value is undeniable. However, precisely this skepticism is also highly creative – and not only in the material sphere but especially in the spiritual one.

People, science, and technology seem nowadays to be interested not in what there is but rather in what there can be. This is visible most of all in our mistrust concerning the claiming of any absolute truths, a concept that was essential for the previous epochs. Indeed, this mistrust is part of our relativism. Yet, this disbelief allows us to search for newer and newer ideas, theories, and instruments.

Nowadays, an unprecedented knowledge of the universe, history, and life marks our civilization. But it is not knowledge of what there is, but rather a development of models about what there could be. These models have no absolute character, and those who conceive them are aware that they can always be changed for better ones.

In this effervescence of model creation, new images of the world emerge, backed by new technologies. It might be that these images are short-lived, but still, they can radically redefine the human being. Relativism is thus highly productive and beneficial. Science, in particular, shows that relativism is not necessarily correlated with a despising of knowledge.

On the contrary, precisely because of this relativism, we can know increasingly broader realms of reality. This is why present-day civilization can define itself as a civilization of knowledge, a civilization that values this relative knowledge as an essential part of it.

Unlike previous types of culture, ours aims to know the realm of possibility rather than ‘reality.’ However, there could be a question of whether man can live in this realm, in a continuous change of settings, instead of in a stable world of truth. 

This risk may not have been as visible as it is today. Our civilization, technology, and science have entered an accelerated pace of development and change, as well as into a time when the amount of data that must be controlled is impossible for a human mind to handle.

Computer science and computer technology have therefore also become essential ingredients of our civilization. But they lead us to a way of being that seems to be very risky for us, human beings, not only in that we have become dependent on our gadgets, but especially in that computers could soon reach self-consciousness and, due to their immense complexity, this consciousness could be completely different from ours.

Therefore, we may not be able to understand it, and these self-conscious computers could be as foreign to us as any alien coming from the remotest planet in the universe. 

Mutual understanding presupposes some unity and some common values. In the past, deadly enemies could finally reach an agreement because they were humans, and they shared, ultimately, some common universal values, be they the most elementary ones, such as the instinct of survival.

This is markedly shown nowadays, when NATO and Russia, although declared enemies, are both aware that a new war between them could not lead to the victory of either camp, but to an inevitably complete destruction of them both and perhaps even of life on earth. 

This is not true in the case of self-conscious computers. It is not at all necessary that they would want to survive, like any other living being. This is why they could be the deadliest enemies for human civilization.

On the other hand, since their consciousness is not a natural one, it might be that we could not understand them in any respect. It would happen with our relationship with them, as in the case of the lion’s speech about which Wittgenstein spoke once. He said that if lions could speak, humans could not understand them.

It is hard to believe that just because humans have created those conscious computers, they will naturally take over the main features of human consciousness. Once they reach autonomy, the immense amount of data they can handle will radically transform any initial similarity with the human being in the same way in which present-day humans think and act very differently from the ways that primitive people thought and acted.

Thus, the end of Western civilization, which has become a planetary civilization, need not come from another human civilization – as Spengler, in his philosophy of history, predicted must happen with every human civilization – but from the computers we have built to support our civilization.

As usual, the human being seems to become the wizard’s apprentice who gets into troubles surpassing his capacities.

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