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Seeing into Eternity: Technology and Speculations about the Eternal

Introduction

The work of Hans Jonas, one of the most penetrating and prolific thinkers of the 20th century, is often eclipsed by the contributions of his towering philosophic mentor, Martin Heidegger. Yet, Jonas’s existential biology and ethics for a technological age reveal a deep and critical engagement with Heidegger’s philosophy worthy of our attention. Jonas sought a vantage point beyond the impasse of nihilism, which he deemed Heidegger’s philosophy lacked adequate resources to combat. Likewise, Jonas’s work reminds us about the immense ethical burden we bear in light of our fast-growing technological prowess.

This article will explore the relationship between the technological crisis, which demands our ethical responsibility according to Jonas, and the speculative philosophy he offers correspondingly. I want to indicate that although the link between the two is not explicitly stated by Jonas, it can be identified by taking seriously Jonas’s concerns about technology as an ethical novum and putting them in conversation with his poetic speculations. My suggestion is that his diagnosis of the technological problem, particularly its futural implications, can profitably be understood in relation to his exposition on eternity presented in “Immortality and the Modern Temper.” In what follows, I shall sketch what I mean by technology’s futural component, which dares to thwart all prior ethical efforts and then attempt to show why, as a result, Jonas appropriates both Kierkegaard and Heidegger’s concept of the “moment.” To conclude, I want to indicate that Jonas’s philosophical myth attempts to capture the feeling of collective responsibility necessary for the technological age.

From Phenomenology to Beyond

Lawrence Vogel contends that there are three stages to the unfolding of Being in Jonas’s thought.[1] Stated briefly here, the first is Jonas’s commitment to existential biology, which intends to illuminate the problems associated with Heidegger’s ontology and revise it to account for immutable categories of biological facts or nature. In his theory of organic being, as the complexity of the organism increases, so too, does its responsibility to preserve itself in the face of mortality. The second stage is Jonas’s ethical imperative whose ontological grounding lies in our capacity to reflect upon Being not only in an existential mode but as an original and universal substance.[2]

However, writing in the Preface to The Phenomenon of Life, he notes: “although my tools are, for the most part, critical analysis and phenomenological description, I have not shied away, toward the end, from metaphysical speculation where conjecture on ultimate and undemonstrable matters seemed called for.”[3] What Vogel describes as the third and theological stage one might also call the mytho-poetic element to Jonas’s project. What I want to propose is that this theological or poetic impulse may supplement the ethics for the future Jonas attempts to develop in light of the technological age.

Time and Feeling

Modern technology “both quantitatively and qualitatively” surpasses “everything man has been able to do up to now both with nature and with himself.”[4] Jonas’s essay, “Toward an Ontological Grounding,” foregrounds the significance of this very issue posed to ethics where the quantitative power of our tools has exceeded our anticipation of its qualitative consequences in the future. Unlike any phenomenon prior, technology’s sheer magnitude grants itself indeterminate power over not only our lives, but the lives we hope our posterity may someday live. The temporal horizon within which we formerly operated is shattered before the future which technology renders indeterminate. By posing this challenge as entirely unprecedented, Jonas apprehends what he calls an ethical novum.

What this means, concretely, is that our engagement with technology now necessarily commands the lives of “countless generations to come” in ways we might not be able to comprehend.[5] In that way, it forces us to think in futural terms as technology brings the “distant future and global scales into our everyday.”[6] There are at least two questions to which Jonas needs answers. The first one is practical. How are our ethics to respond to something that it has not encountered before? In other words, if our sense of responsibility is supposed to be commensurate with the magnitude of our power, how are we to proceed in light of an entirely new temporal horizon? The second question sits behind the first: “whether and why there ought to be a mankind” at all?[7] Jonas makes his way towards two answers and they both involve an adjustment to Kantian ethics.

Kant’s moral imperative “extrapolates into an ever-present order of abstract compatibility,” which exposes its temporal deficiency according to Jonas. The ethical imperative Jonas proposes, on the other hand, adds “a time horizon to the moral calculus” which is entirely absent from the Kantian formulation.[8] For Jonas, Kant’s formal and atemporal claim to moral action is inadequate to meet the futural nature of the technological crisis. Jonas’s ethics need to account for “foresight and responsibility, which is as new as are the issues with which it has to deal.”[9]

The second component Jonas wishes to stress about moral action contrary to Kant is that it is “only the added feeling of responsibility, which binds the subject to this object” and which “will make us act on its behalf.”[10] Repeated in “Toward an Ontological Grounding,” Jonas writes, “no metaphysical sanction is even necessary, yet it is anticipated in these reflexes triggered by decency and by solidarity with our own species.”[11] What he has in mind, in particular, is people of the future: our progeny. “Care of progeny,” he writes, is so spontaneous “that it needs no invoking the moral law” but instead, “objective and subjective meet as one.”[12] Insofar as we are told that we have duties to one another and our progeny, Jonas admits that we need to remember that we already feel this imperative deeply prior to the stated maxim. Indeed, the feeling has only been temporarily obscured as the modern temper of man attempts to understand itself solely in the mode of anxiety over one’s own death without reference to the collective. This, I think, is what links Jonas’s ethics to his speculation.

Under the Eyes of Eternity: Breaking with Heidegger’s Immanence

My aim for this section is twofold. First, I will elucidate how Jonas appropriates and revises the “moment” from existentialist thought by releasing it from its immanent scope. Second, I shall show how this element explicitly plays into Jonas’s concerns about feeling the weight of our actions and implicitly corresponds to the care we ought to hold for future generations.

Jonas’s claim is that modern hostility to immortality is to our own detriment, especially in times of ethical crisis. His way in is, again, through feeling.[13] “And yet, we feel that temporality cannot be the whole story,” because it is man’s “self-surpassing quality, of which the very fact and fumbling of our idea of eternity is a cryptic signal,” he writes.[14] For Kierkegaard, we also feel the weight of eternity yet, it represents an eternal force touching down in the temporal. This generates anxiety as the paradox of the God-man cannot be comprehended by reason. Yet, in Jonas’s estimation, eternity transforms moments of extreme decision where “we feel as if [we are] acting under the eyes of eternity.”[15] Unlike Kierkegaard, these moments under the eyes of eternity revive a sense of agency in individual human deeds rather than a destabilizing angst. Jonas’s moment is one of affirmation where “the moment places the responsible agent between time and eternity.”[16]

This odd feature of our temporal existence where two irreconcilable domains meet reveals that we are active, not passive recipients such that we are “wholly subject and in no way object.”[17] In this way, the moment shares more affinity with Heidegger’s resolute decision. To be sure, Jonas does not fall for the same trap that Heidegger sets for himself—that is, the inability to make temporal discriminations in light of ethical responsibility. That is to say, the only standard by which a decision can be made under Heidegger’s temporality is a Dasein’s attitude towards death. Heidegger then lacks the tools with which to separate ontological and ontic happenings. Because he cannot say precisely what it means for Dasein to own his own death and face it resolutely (for that can only be answered by a particular Dasein) nor can he make a judgment about the content of a historical decision, he is forced to render historical happenings ethically neutral.

To make this problematic linkage clearer, consider the following juxtaposition. For Heidegger, “Death reveals itself as that possibility which is one’s ownmost, which is non-relational, and which is not to be outstripped.[18] Dasein is always in a state of fleeing death, which is impending. Anticipatory resoluteness is not the “solution” to being-towards-death, but it can strip Dasein away from the They long enough to face death. In resoluteness Dasein will be in a “moment of vision,” whereby it “temporalizes itself” in terms of the “authentic future” while at the same time being thrown back upon itself.[19] Dasein, being handed over by tradition can come to be “in the moment of vision for “its time.’”[20] Compare this with his remarks in the Introduction to Metaphysics. In asking fundamental questions not yet asked about (such as Being and nothing), Dasein both opens up possibilities and binds it back to its inception. It is then “called to make a decision in it” which constitutes a happening.[21]

This threefold movement of asking about Being, revealing possibilities (including one’s own impossibility), and then making a resolute decision constitutes an authentic temporal movement for a being. Perhaps not coincidentally, only three temporal modes are in operation. Individually, we make a decision under the auspices of our own death, which can tell us nothing about what that action entails. Similarly, on the historical level, Dasein makes decisions under the eyes of fate or the future, which is indeterminate because, for Heidegger, we are at the end of the tradition and as such, the end of time.

It is important then, to show how Jonas’s moment of decisions substantially differs from Heidegger’s. There are two clues that are pivotal. The moment, for Jonas, is a link to an external standard, which is eternity not history or fate. Likewise, it points to the supreme significance of immortal deeds as opposed to internal resoluteness. The existential interpretation of temporality is an infinite succession of “nows” where past, present, and future are all relative to the being’s particular “now.” Thus, with temporality condensed, it is “indifferent to the long or the short of duration.”[22] On the contrary, Jonas’s moment, which is to act in the face of the end is really to “understand it in a light from beyond time.”[23]  The feeling of supreme decision still serves to remind us of the ideas of justice that still “command in us a stirring of acknowledgement by the transcendent dignity it confers.”[24]

We observed already two critiques that Jonas launches at Kant’s moral imperative pointing to its insufficiency in addressing an ethical novum. The first was the inadequacy of the temporal horizon and the second was the problem of feeling. My claim is that Jonas’s speculation about the moment actually seeks to provide a basis for Kant’s atemporality through feeling. The moment both removes the agent from the temporal-causal chain and links the decision or moment to transcendence.

What Jonas identifies as the crisis of technology he matches in his description of eternity. In order to meet the burden of technology, Jonas needs to capture an experience of eternal decision. He captures the same urgency that Heidegger invokes with resoluteness in the face of death but opens it to transcendence thereby breaking with Heideggerian immanence. What may seem like a tangent or lingering sympathy for Heidegger, it does serve a crucial role in supporting Jonas’s ethics for the future. Jonas needs to meet technology in its quantity and its stake by conveying that we, indeed, make decisions under the weight of the eternal. The extreme quantitative nature of the technological crisis requires that Jonas capture a sense of urgency equal to that of the danger. We are now in a position to see the second part of Jonas’s speculative vein through his philosophical myth.

Stepping Out into the Future

I want to submit two things with regard to Jonas’s myth. The first is that it follows naturally from the description of the moment whereby responsibility is linked to the eternal. Second, it implicitly addresses the futural problem already identified with technology, namely that it requires us to make meaningful decisions about generations to come. Jonas has established the authority of our subjective feeling that our deeds matter for eternity and that they link to a transcendent dignity. Moreover, by taking his bearings from Jewish theology, Jonas further discloses that we can look upon these deeds as inherently connected to imitations or ideals, prefigured by the Book of Life.

To feel the weight of eternal consciousness is to say, likewise, that “deeds inscribe themselves in an eternal memoir of time” and they can register beyond the eventual dissipating causal patterns of time.[25] What is more, this is an indication that eternity has a stake in our actions. Now, Jonas notes that this only holds the status of a “hypothetical background of metaphysical fact.”[26] The background, as he goes on to explore, includes familiar features of Jewish theology. In the beginning, God began a great experiment on the basis that the world was a Good-in-itself and gave human beings the freedom to take care of the world.

By framing beings as stewards of the world beholden to a transcendent being, Jonas links the human yearning for immortality with ultimate responsibility. With the weight of generations to come on our shoulders, it is fully possible that we act for good or for evil. Jonas does not make this analogy explicit, but in light of the technological crisis Jonas deems to be imminent, I think we would benefit from situating the philosophical myth within this context. Jonas’s warning about the technological age has to do with technology’s magnanimity, ambiguity, and apocalyptic potential. The speculation about responsibility to the Creator allows us to see our actions with great weight amid the otherwise unbearable lightness of nihilistic Being. If technology’s power forces us to think in apocalyptic terms, we can have recourse to myth in order that we may have divine hope of success. Finally, to the question of whether and why there ought to be a mankind at all, Jonas says that we owe responsibility for mankind to something outside of ourselves. To invoke the eternity’s stake in us is also to invoke the debt we owe to the future generations in order that they may also have a chance to serve God. Accordingly, Jonas has recovered the longing for justice in immortal deeds that has not been vanquished, only concealed by the modern temper.

In the Preface of The Phenomenon of Life, Jonas proposes to account for all of the life’s great contradictions which man discovers in himself—giving proper weight to each.[27]  Technology seems to make this possibility of balance a difficult task. The crisis shifts the burden of the temporal future to our present concern. Yet, instead of taking Heidegger’s solution to laude radical finitude, Jonas upholds his promise by giving beings their agency and responsibility while still acknowledging mortality. In so doing, Jonas gives due to transcendence, which is absent in modern thought. While, for Jonas, turning to metaphysics, which tells us nature is a Good-in-itself is absolutely necessary, he also holds that “intellectual deduction must be coupled with vividness of imagination.”[28] Jonas hints that the burden of technology may press upon a deeper need for spiritual wholeness so that it can be in a better position to support metaphysics. This is how we ought to step into the future and see into eternity.

The Great Pause of Metaphysics: Remaining Speculations

I have hitherto suggested that while Jonas’s speculation is not required for his biological ethics, his ethics for the future benefits from the invocation of poetic themes. That said, there are several puzzles Jonas seems to leave unfinished. Are theological speculations always to accompany ethics for the future or are they in themselves always necessary? What might it mean for philosophy that theological and poetic inquiries give respite from its discourse? Jonas speaks of the “great pause of metaphysics” wherein “philosophy even in its helplessness must not deny”[29] taking up the task of myth. If philosophy, that which studies the things which are always and permanent, finds itself helpless or at times of pause, this must mean, for Jonas, poetry grants something to the human soul that is beyond the reach of philosophy.

One has to wonder whether philosophy, even as a necessary open-ended quest,[30] fails to satiate some fundamental questions—answers to which human beings always long. Jonas suggests that the human asks about the whole of being—in search for an answer to the questions: Who am I? Why am I here at all? What is the whole reason behind my being, or behind my thatness not whatness. Jonas certainty seems to signal that human beings hold an unquenchable hope for feeling at home in the world, which is uniquely responded to by poetry. For Jonas, poetry gives us a personal and all-loving God to whom we are responsible. However, one might ask whether the gods of Greek poetry could also provide solace to the hope that Diodotus speaks of in Thucydides. In each case, it appears that poetry presupposes the belief that if I could know from whence I was thrown into this world, I could be whole. In giving preference to origins over essences, poetry may, at times, fill the great pause of philosophy.

 

Notes

[1] See Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Northwestern University Press, 2001), xiv and Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, Edited by Lawrence Vogel, (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University: Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, 1996), 5. Perhaps Vogel’s characterization is a little misleading because the order of the stages does not mirror an ascent or hierarchy in Jonas’s mind. If anything, the third “stage” is less necessary than the first two. Jonas makes this explicit in several places. See Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 115, 125 and The Phenomenon of Life, 284 for instance.

[2] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 283.

[3] Ibid, xxiv.

[4] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 103.

[5] Hans Jonas, “Technology as a Subject for Ethics.” Social Research 49, no. 4 (1982): 893.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 895.

[8] Hans Jonas, “Technology and Responsibility: Reflections on the New Tasks of Ethics.” Social Research 40, no. 1 (1973): 44.

[9] Ibid, 45.

[10] Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 90.

[11] Hans, Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 109.

[12] Hans, Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, 90.

[13] Jonas speaks of feeling throughout “Immortality and the Modern Temper” in Mortality and Morality. See Mortality and Morality 104, 108, and 110.

[14] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 119. My emphasis.

[15] Ibid, 120.

[16] Ibid,121.

[17] Ibid, 120.

[18] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008), 294.

[19] Ibid, 388.

[20] Ibid, 437.

[21] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics (Yale University Press; 2nd edition, 2014), 49, 121, 156-7.

[22] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 121.

[23] Ibid, 120

[24] Ibid, 122.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 274.

[27] Ibid, xxiii.

[28] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 104.

[29] Ibid, 128.

[30] Ibid, 101 and The Phenomenon of Life, 187.

Moriah PoliakoffMoriah Poliakoff

Moriah Poliakoff

Moriah Poliakoff is a graduate student at Boston College studying Political Theory. Her principal areas of interest include technology and ethics, poetry, and 20th Century German philosophy.

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