LECTURE ONE from Shaping Citizenship: Spiritual Renewal and Service
in the World, 26 September 2014 Anthroposophical Conference.
THE DEVELOPMENT of human beings is shaped, if you look at anthroposophical cosmology, by evolutionary processes that recapitulate themselves in a different and more enhanced form at specific points in human history. This recapitulation stops during our time – nothing now is being repeated. This is because we have reached the point of ‘human freedom’, and it is unpredictable what humans will do with their freedom. It is now a time for decisive moments in world history. That is why I was very happy to be asked to come and talk at this conference on the theme ‘Citizenship and Service in the World’, because this theme is essential and extremely pertinent right now. I believe that anthroposophy has a huge amount to contribute to the world; it is important to remember that the world also has a lot to contribute to anthroposophy. This is a mutual engagement whereby something new can emerge that can move humanity forward in the way that it needs to if it is not going to fail in its mission – the evolutionary mission of the human species.
I would like to start by summarising some key themes from my article in the June 2014 edition of Sphere, ‘Self Mastery in the Service of the World’, in which I discussed spiritual science as the foundation of new social forms. Part of my own research into anthroposophic literature has been to try and take a closer look at how Steiner envisioned spiritual science and why he introduced it into the world. This lecture series will not only repeat many of the things that have been proposed by Steiner but will bring it to a new understanding based on where we are right now, in this particular moment in time.
Knowledge into action, deeds that transform
What Steiner encapsulates perfectly is the very nature of what we are grappling with today. First, he says that spiritual knowledge should be translated into action. In other words, one’s involvement in spiritual science is incomplete if something remains only as knowledge. He then said knowledge should result in deeds that transform all life – so you can see the immense scope of what is required. First, knowledge into action, then it is our deeds that will transform our life and the lives of others.
Steiner says that spiritual science was introduced not as a whim by an individual personality but because it was essential to the further evolution of humanity. We need to understand that we are being asked to take an active role in a very large context. Steiner goes on to say these actions need to take place within the world cosmic context. (There is a lot of food for thought in those two words ‘cosmic context’, which I will return to towards the end.) In anthroposophical science, it is a very large context. The interesting thing is that the world is actually catching up with spiritual science – many amazing things that are now being achieved in the world are being done within this world cosmic context.
The past is prologue
In the context of the preparatory stages of evolution, which we have now moved through, we arrive at an unprecedented time, because essentially very little is now determined by what happened in the past. The human freedom that has been born thus far is faced with a tremendous challenge – where to take this freedom – and if we don’t overcome this challenge as anthroposophists, we will actually be contributing to the burden of humanity.
It is extremely clear from its very inception that spiritual science was introduced at a very specific moment of history in preparation for something – and what that something was becomes very clear a few years later, after the Christmas Foundation (the founding of the Anthroposophical Society 1923). Two things stand out: the lectures on karma, where Steiner outlines the nature of karma in a very detailed manner, and the last comment he made before crossing the threshold on sub-nature. One summation of what he said in the karma lectures is that, if we are not able to unite the different spiritual karmic streams, inwardly and outwardly, humanity will face an abyss. Steiner was so disturbed by this notion that he worked tirelessly with this theme even though he was very ill at the time. Immediately prior to his death, he delivered, in the Michaelic letters to members, the vision he was foreseeing – the emergence of sub-nature, the very sub-nature we see arising now and into the future of humanity, presenting our greatest challenge.
People at that time did not understand what he was talking about, because the concept of sub-nature was so new to them. But that topic was his chief concern, and from that you can see that he consciously had two milestones in mind when he grounded spiritual science in the world. The first milestone was the introduction of spiritual science, and the second was that spiritual science was not there for itself. Spiritual science was meant to grow in strength and vitality, because by the end of the 20th century, or around this time, there would be the greatest challenges that humanity will face, and if spiritual science has not become a force of civilisation to the same extent as the Copernicus world view (revolutionising science in the modern world view), then humanity will plunge into the abyss. So those are both key milestones: the introduction of spiritual science and the realisation that it needs to be in the world as deeds – not just kept for oneself as a personal relationship to it. One must prepare for something that is coming, something totally unprecedented in the evolution of humanity.
Preparing for the ultimate challenge
When we take a look at the current world phenomena today, we can see what Steiner was referring to, and several things stand out. Instead of dwelling on the fact that the United Nations has identified 10,000 major problems for humanity, I am going to discuss the two biggest ones we are facing today. First, the financial crisis is still here. G20 ministers are meeting in Australia in November to discuss what to do with the world’s financial crisis, which is by no means over and is still affecting economies. Concurrently, whilst we stand here today, the UN Climate Summit Catalyzing Action is being held in New York. If we imagine a future where humanity is having a drastic impact on the atmosphere, we can see and experience that climate effects and extreme weather events are already taking place right now. But there is a much larger issue than the financial crisis and drastic climate change. I am going to focus on something that few people are paying attention to; this something is moving at a very rapid speed – and we need to become aware of what Steiner said in his last letter to members – because this is a key message about sub-nature emerging to become the dominant force shaping civilisation.
Can we organise ourselves to prepare for this ultimate challenge? A very interesting article that appeared several years ago in 2000 exhibited how there were people who saw this coming and to what extent
it would manifest. The article, published in Wired magazine, was, ‘Why the future doesn’t need us?’ (you can Google it). Wired, in the English-speaking world, is a cutting-edge magazine that looks at technological trends. This article was written by Bill Joy, the
chief scientist of a large corporation called Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley, so it was not written by a Luddite. Joy wrote Java, one of the languages of the internet; he is right in the middle of this technology revolution. He writes: ‘Homo Sapiens, an extinct
bi-ped species’. In other words, he was seeing the potential future extinction of humanity. Joy’s article became the most discussed article in the history of Wired magazine. It resonated so profoundly because it came from an insider in the technological world – to use a metaphor, it was like a cardinal saying that the Pope has no clothes.
So why was Steiner so alarmed in respect to, what is now being called, ‘technological singularity’? By the way, it is also referred to as ‘convergent technology’ – which is a tamer term and an example of a corporate language that modifies terminology so as to hide
the radical nature of what’s going on. It is similar to changing ‘genetically engineered organism’ to ‘GMO’ (genetically modified organism), the latter seemingly less problematic. In technological singularity, there are 52 technologies that cluster around four major areas. Keep in mind that each of these technologies will have the same impact as the Industrial Revolution – and this has a huge effect on some countries like the Philippines that haven’t even graduated from the Industrial Revolution. By introducing 52 technologies that are so radical, so mindboggling and unprecedented, it begs the question – does the human species have the capacity to deal with this?
Before I describe the technologies, I will describe the nature of why they are so disturbing to many people. First, as with anything, these technologies are growing exponentially. Technological singularity is exactly that, whereby all of these technologies are going to grow and converge, leading up to an almost infinitely rapid explosion of technological innovation.
Have you heard of the metaphor ‘the 29th day’? To get an idea of exponential growth, you picture a lily pond and watch how it multiplies every day. The first day there is one lily, the second day there are two lilies, the third day there are four, the fourth day eight, the fifth day 16, and so on. Now on the 28th day, half the pond is full, so when we double it, it becomes completely full in one day, on the 29th day. So while it may appear to be growing slowly to begin with, all of a sudden, it’s accelerating astronomically. The other thing to remember is that the rate of acceleration is also accelerating.
So what is technological singularity? Let’s look at the first topic under the nanotechnology umbrella. Nanotechnology is basically engineering at the level of a nanometre, which is one billionth of a metre. The scale is a very small scale, so there is the capacity to build a structure, a physical form, molecule by molecule. There are three-dimensional printers that are nanotech construction machines. Some of the prototypes created from nanotech-3D printers are organs, such as the human heart. Nanotechnology deals with non-living matter, basically the physical, whereas one of the other technology clusters is genetic engineering or biotechnology which is the technology that deals with the engineering of life, such as life cloning – the cloning of living cells, tissues and organs and ultimately, one day, of humans. Probably one of the worst forms now is synthetic biology, a biology that is based on the creation and construction of amino acids and new microbes that never existed naturally. Scientists have now achieved the creation of a synthetic microbe that stayed alive for at least three weeks. This is just the beginning of what the scope and scale of synthetic technology will become.
The third technology is information technology, so computers, telecommunications and super computers. By the way, I have to tell you that I am not an anti-technology person, nor a Luddite. I am bringing to light what is emerging with the wish to highlight that, if there is no response to this technological onslaught in a creative and constructive way, it will take over.
The fastest super computer today has the power to do over 33 trillion calculations per second, and the predictions are that, in the next few years, there will be a super computer that will have the same computing power as the human brain. By the year 2029, a super computer will have the computing power of all the human beings on the planet. Consider what that means, because right now, even with lesser computing power, the ability exists to surpass humans. For example, Garry Kasparov, one the world’s greatest chess players in history, was defeated by a super computer in 1997. He in turn defeated the super computer. Several years later, he was defeated again. He got so exhausted that he retired from playing chess. Several years ago, in 2011, there was a similar case with the game Jeopardy. Jeopardy differs from chess, for example, the total combinations in chess are 64! or 64 factorial – billions of possible moves (nothing difficult for a super computer that can calculate billions, and now trillions, of calculations per second), but in Jeopardy, there are nuances as far as being able to read between the lines and understand questions that are more ambiguous.
A few years ago, the two world champions of Jeopardy, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, were beaten by a super computer. And one of these super champions said that this computer completely rattled him because the computer had a thought process similar to his own – which was the intention of IBM, the computer’s producer. IBM programmed the thinking processes of the world champion into the super computer – Watson – ‘who’ was then able to beat the world champion. This example introduces the fourth area, which is cognitive technology or artificial intelligence, in which you begin to see abilities in the computer’s capacity to mimic high-level intellectual operations and ultimately bring machine intelligence to life. So you can see how technology is building a counterpart, a counter image of a human being.
Dealing with super intelligent machines
Scientists are saying that technological singularity, at the rate it is going, will be achieved in 2045. And so the young people in this room may be in a world where the first massive super intelligent machines are going to be in existence. The scientists that are very close to this development process are saying that this accomplishment will be the last invention of human beings. When it reaches that stage, and the capacity for the computer to reinvent itself has been developed, then it will start massively replicating itself and proliferating, and we could then experience part of the nightmare that is seen in the movie Transcendence. This movie is part science-fiction but also contains real scientific discoveries that are already happening.
The key question is, how will the world deal with super intelligent machines? The US army already has over 3,000 drones that are used as a ‘robotic air force’ and are driven by artificial intelligence. Currently, we are living in a world that seems very ‘quiet’, and an analogy that I will make in respect to this is the tsunami that hit Asia. The day it hit was a warm and sunny day, people were swimming at the beach, when all of a sudden, a few hours later, over 100,000 people were dead. This wave was travelling at the speed of a jet plane, almost 900km per hour, and was not seen until it made impact.
This current technological revolution is happening right now, and billions and billions of dollars are being poured into it. Yet there is no global conversation about what we want to do with that technology. So, technological singularity, in my personal opinion,
is the nightmare that Steiner saw because many of these technologies are connected to sub-nature. As mentioned, Steiner defined sub-nature in some of his lectures. These were electricity, magnetism and a third force, which is not clearly stipulated, but may well have been nuclear, though no one really knows. Steiner also began to link this with some of the spiritual beings that are behind these forces.
Now the interesting thing in respect to the artificial intelligence debate – and this is where I think some very provocative things are going to happen – is that, when evolutionary scientists study the evolution of the human species, they see a certain point of complexity in the physical structure of the brain that allowed complex consciousness to incarnate and emerge. Scientists cannot understand why all of a sudden the front brain in the human being, or the prefrontal cortex, became gigantic in size compared to our nearest relatives, the primates. We share 99% of our genetic material with primates, but primates cannot do what humans do – so something happened, and that something is connected with the development of the prefrontal cortex.
So it is very possible that a new and very different kind of consciousness can emerge given the very high level of complexity of the ‘brain’ of super sophisticated artificially intelligent machines – one that would be vastly superior to the prevailing average mode of human consciousness. That’s my own thinking, especially now with experiments showing that consciousness affects how matter behaves. For example, brain research into consciousness and neuroplasticity show how our thoughts can actually restructure our brain, rewiring neural pathways, and this is being done actively with humans today.
Michael Phelps, the American Olympic swimmer, won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. His training was based on the findings of neuroscience about neuroplasticity, whereby he did mental rehearsals on a regular basis. This exercise in turn reshaped his brain and enabled the brain to execute the muscle movements required for such physical feats. Unlike positive thinking, which stays at a very general level of belief without understanding the underlying functions of the brain, mental rehearsal is a systematic and detailed visualisation of a future condition, a visualisation that considers that future as already accomplished.
The emergence of consciousness from highly complex and sophisticated super intelligent machines is a situation that, in spiritual science, you could potentially call the incarnation of Ahriman, especially when looking at what is driving these technological breakthroughs, which is wholly connected with materialistic thinking. People are searching for four things in their striving for technological singularity: super health, super intelligence, super strength and physical immortality. Now the question is – how do we respond to it? This is a huge and compelling question, and maybe we will see some answers emerging through our conversations in the next few days, but I will give a prelude on the answer now.
First, why is this happening? The potential extinction of the human species is on the horizon because humanity has no alternative image of what it means to be truly human. Because there is no mainstream image of the human being in the world today that can address all the questions connected to the origin, nature, capacities, purpose, sufferings and destination of human beings. Therefore, millions, not knowing any better, welcome the lure and promises of technological nirvana. In addition, there is no image of nature that is comprehensive enough to answer the temptations that technological singularity is offering in terms of a radical redesign of nature. Or to be crystal clear, I think because anthroposophy, spiritual science, is not a significant force today, then technological singularity has come into being. After all, many of those questions above regarding humanity and nature can be answered through spiritual science in a real scientific way; it is not just a belief system.
The counter image of collapse
Our current world situation is unprecedented, and if you go out and serve the world today, then technology is on the agenda everywhere because it will change economics, it will change governance, it will change everything. Already, nanotechnologies have the power to transmute chemical elements. For example, chalk can be transformed into a material as hard as steel. Many of the mining companies will begin to suffer problems when nanotechnologies start transforming carbon into other metals. This is just one of the applications that exists already, and in fact many mining companies in the world, especially the largest ones that continue to mine the earth, are already doing research in the transmutation of chemical elements through nanotechnology.
However, this is only one side of the world picture. There is another side that is also emerging simultaneously, a side that has the potential to provide a powerful counterweight to the assumptions and intentions of technological singularity. Many of the modern scientific frameworks that created these radical technologies – their scientific foundations – are either collapsing and/or being radically supplemented with a more accurate understanding of reality. For example, Newtonian mechanics and Einstein’s relativity are now subsets of the more comprehensive science of quantum physics. The science of quantum physics is changing our understanding of the kinds of energy that exist as well as our causal relationship to the universe.
One of the most radical discoveries, experimentally verified in 1982 and substantiated through the years, is the non-local nature of the universe. Non-locality not happen by chance, and therefore we are not on this planet accidentally.
We are here for a very specific reason, and it is very clear that part of that reason has to do with freedom, which is convergent with many spiritual scientific principles – with freedom comes the capacity to love. That is why outside the anthroposophic movement you have the interesting term evolutionary spirituality. This term is mainstream in the English-speaking world and is also used in Europe, and observant people are saying: What is the message here? Why is humanity awakening to a profound understanding of the spirituality of the universe at a time humanity is also simultaneously destroying the planet?
What do we do with our freedom?
We are now faced with a stark question – what do we do with our freedom? An agnostic, Mark Lynas, has written a book entitled The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans. In this book, he observes the phenomenon that human beings have the power to drastically remake the planet – almost like a ‘second genesis’. He uses this powerful metaphor to suggest that, by utilising our radical technologies, we have the power to create something completely anew. So you can see that the question ‘What shall we do with our freedom?’ also pertains to our relationship to technology. To be alive today is to experience humanity’s failure to provide a very clear idea of what a human being is, and because of this, all these different aspects have evolved and have come into being. This situation is an unprecedented moment in history – the future of the planet is literally in our hands.
So what do we do with that? In lecture three we will take a look at this – at what it means to work in the world. What it means for a biodynamic farmer working in the garden. What it means when someone is teaching or practising medicine. And when we say we are doing this work, out of the world cosmic context, what does that really mean? Because unless we really understand this, we cannot play a role. Steiner made it really clear in his lecture cycle called Spiritual Science as a Foundation for Social Forms that the task of spiritual science is something grand; it is of a huge scale, but we need to understand what this huge scale means. It doesn’t mean that we all have to be in the United Nations. You can actually work big scale in a school or on a farm and we will discuss how this is possible [in lecture three]. But I just want to say that giving this context is really important because
a lot is being expected of us. We are the generation that was supposed to be the Michaelic generation. The generation that was supposed to come and take spiritual science and make it a cultural planetary force that would affect political and economic life. That’s why we came here, that is why we are here and if we call ourselves anthroposophists, we now take on the burden of this task.
Now I am going to touch upon something that is particularly sensitive, but I really have to say this. It has massive implications and relates to the question how do we as anthroposophists connect with the world? There has always been a kind of tacit notion that Michael, who is a time spirit of the planet, is working only in the anthroposophical movement. Of course, this a huge lie if you say Michael is a time spirit only for the anthroposophic movement. What about the rest of the world? Spiritual science is about allowing the sacrifice of the Christ to continue to make evolution work for everyone. Michael works with individualities in the world who can take up
this impulse, even if they do so unconsciously.
And by ‘unconsciously’, I mean in terms of lack of awareness of the wider context of spiritual science, not ‘unconsciously’ in terms of the sub-conscious. Because many of these people who are shaping
the world today, who are more or less aligned with Michaelic intentions, have access to higher cognitive states as understood in the spirit of Steiner’s Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. I know this for a fact in myself; I know this for a fact with many friends who are out there shaping the world.
There are people who are not anthroposophists, in the higher sense of what it means, and yet they are creatively thinking and engaging with the world fearlessly – through their own thinking processes, which are not born out of fear. They too have access to aspects of the world process, to the inherent directionality in the evolution of the universe, and they engage and serve the world with real courage and great force. That is why we find these people all over the world, people that we can really relate to. This has massive strategic and practical implications on how we are in the world, because in one sense, our anthroposophical brothers and sisters are out there, but in a much larger sense, we need to realise that our brothers and sisters are potentially the whole of humanity. Each individual has a spiritual form, a spiritual essence, that has to be nurtured and nourished, and every person has the ability to play a role in the future of humanity through the unfolding of their intuitive thinking.
The starting point is now
Humanity is now in a situation that has totally no antecedent. After billions of years being the passive product of cosmic evolution, the human species is now becoming a powerful agent of transformation in the evolutionary stage. What the human beings on this planet decide to do now will affect what happens in the entire universe in epochs to come.
We all have a choice, but we have to answer questions about our purpose in a much larger context. Most of the time, practically all the time, when you ask ‘What is my purpose here on Earth?’, most people think that this purpose is in connnection with their own personal aspirations. Yet the answer has nothing to do with you. When I say nothing to do with you, I am really meaning it has nothing to do with our persona, with our ‘ordinary self’ because our ‘ordinary self’ separates us from the unity of the world context. The purpose we ought to serve, and a purpose truly appropriate to our own divine nature, our higher self, is a purpose that understands, cares for and loves the profound intentions embedded in the whole fabric and evolutionary thrust of the universe.
We also need to understand how humanity has been evolving since the beginning of time until today, because today, the future will be determined by what we do. Some members of humanity are going to drag us into the abyss, but there are others who will use these technologies and transform them to a higher level. This transformation requires inner work, and in Steiner’s last letter to members, a letter written from his sick bed, he indicates a ‘solution’ to the challenge of technological singularity. The only force that can deal with sub-nature is the force that arises in us when we develop in ourselves the capacity to rise into the spiritual realms, to the same extent that humanity itself is plunging into the abyss. So that is why self-mastery – the inner work and how it is then placed in the service of the future of humanity – is so important. Because the world is on fire.