The Myth of Homo Faber: Prometheus, Epimetheus, and the Predictive Mind

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The mind exists in prediction. —Jakob Hohwy

The myth goes something like this: humans in the beginning were thrown into the world naked and alone, without any essential nature or origins transcending their arising. The Greeks in their own codification of this story as a first stab at theo-anthropological bric-a-brac invented the story of Zeus, Prometheus, and his brother Epimetheus to order this blind process of those first humans caught up in a world not of their own making and more profoundly not of their own knowledge and choosing.  

According to the Greeks Zeus created all animals as species as beings without an essence, and left the job of distributing the powers of mobility, intelligence, and strength to Prometheus. This is where things went awry in that Prometheus had a brother, Epimetheus, who persuaded him to take up the task of distributing the various gifts to all the animal species on planet earth. After having done this it was discovered by Prometheus that every last animal on earth had been given a gift but those pesky humans. Epimetheus in his haste to please his brother had forgotten all about humanity and had left it without any form or capacity to survive on its own in the harsh and bitter world. Humans lacked anything within to help them survive on their own so that Prometheus feeling sorry for this wretched creature stole fire from the gods and distributed it as a supplement to this otherwise empty and naked creature.

It is this original gift of the supplement, the external origin of our relation to technology and technics that situates us in that zone of anticipating the future, of predicting the obstacles, antagonisms, and unknown and unanticipated consequences of our technological inventions that have shaped not only our sociality but the very fabric of our minds and bodies as humans. It is this relation to tools that made us human, these supplements that have shaped our memory, reflections, and socio-cultural transmission into the future. Yet, it is this very relation to technology that has bound us to the two-edged sword of toxicity and therapeutic power. Because we lack any essential nature we are unbound from any stable relation to ourselves or our neighbors, and all the conflicts, wars, antagonisms that have arisen between groups, nations, etc. have arisen because of this lack of at the heart of the human. 

And, yet, it is this very theft of technology from the gods that has shaped and formed humans from the beginning; our fate and our catastrophe. It is this theft of technology that lies at the core of the human condition; in spite of our self-sufficiency, our lack of an essential nature, we as humans are bound to our supplements, our tools, our technological wonders. And it is this original relation to technology that has shaped us into the very antagonistic world we see around us. The very hubris of our need for supplements binds us to a world where the making and re-making of ourselves and the world around us condemns us to a never-ending war of perpetual re-creation of the very means of our existence.  

It is this perpetual battle between foresight and forgetfulness that is both the glory and shame of the human species. Both our ability to anticipate catastrophe and our wisdom that comes  in such confidence in technology produces after-the-fact or in the last instance that shapes our societies and political meanderings. This very antagonism at the core of the human and its relations to its world as shaped by the very technological supplements that have give it its ongoing projects has served us well up till now. But now we live in a world whose consequences of this fatal relationship have brought us to the point of stupidity. Our original relation to technology and technics has reversed itself, and the very technologies that served to shape both ourselves and the earth around us are in our time taking on a autonomous relation to the detriment of the human itself. Technology no longer needs us, we are becoming expendable to this relation that has for thousands of years given humanity power over life and the external environment. 

As technology becomes intelligent and autonomous it will take on the capacities and powers that have up till now been under the control and direction of human ingenuity and lack. This very tendency of technology to escape the control and guidance of the human has been ongoing for hundreds of years. This is nothing new, what is new is our ability as humans to reflect on this state of affairs which we did not anticipate and may not be able to contravene. Much of scientific and philosophical thought in our time has uncovered this dire truth and is slowly reflecting on the catastrophic consequences of this state of affairs. 

On a personal note one realizes that to support such a thesis would take thousands of hours and as many books from the realms of scholars, scientists, philosophers, etc. to even begin to form the basic outline of our present predicament and relation to this ongoing catastrophe. Our relations to these intelligent artifacts is part of a larger reshaping of intelligence on the planet. Can we anticipate where intelligence and super-intelligence is leading us? Should we fear it or welcome it? As one reads the literature one sees the endless squabbles among academics and laymen alike over the consequence of our stupidity in regards to this unanticipated disaster in the ongoing programme that is humanity.  The Inhumanists who welcome it are happily a on the side of these technological wonders anticipating he ultimate demise of humanity after a long internecine war for survival among the machines. While the humanists seek to curtail and encompass this threat within a the ethical straight-jacket of religious and socio-cultural systems of control hoping against hope that it will not and can never happen. Is there a middle-ground? Are we to re-read the fabulous thought of science-fiction writers who were there before us anticipating and already diagnosing such futures in ways we are only now beginning to comprehend. 

I’ve personally written on both sides of this issue trying to show through the extreme thought of certain marginal and post-human thinkers, artists, writers, scientists, and philosophers the strange future that is unfolding in rapidity in our time. An accelerating future that seems to be coming at us or drawing us into the vortex of unanticipated strangeness. With what little time I have left on this planet I shall begin to reflect on this imponderable future digging here and there, mining the minds of those on the cutting edge of this global catastrophe. While many seem to be satisfied to bicker over the petty politics of our media-run global staged farce this other world goes on silently and under the radar of most humans. My blog has had certain tendencies in the past that have probed the left and right of the political spectrum trying to understand the sheer ineptitude of our world leaders in this present crisis of humanity. It’s as if we’d rather remain in the stupidity of petty relations that have become our humanist politics than to wake up and see the world that is rapidly overtaking us and stripping us of our own humanity. The human era is slowly coming to an end and that of the intelligent machines has yet to completely emerge. How we manage this transitional phase and anticipate our role within it is for me the important matter in need of discussion. All else is of little use… if technology and techics was in that origin a supplement that made us human, in our time the reverse could be said to be true: technology is unmaking the human and freeing itself of the supplement and prosthetic of the animal kingdom for its own inorganic future without us.

While transhumanists dream of incorporating humanity into the machinic phylum as the engine driving some immortalist vision, stripping us of our organic life-forms for some inorganic machinic substratum that can move optimistically into this new world. And humanists of all stripes see this as not only evil but the very end game of humanity that must be stopped dead in its tracks, buffered by some political, social, and religio-atheistic ethical system of beliefs, codes, and law. There are those in neither camp that wonder at it all, pondering the strangeness that is before us and behind us, not willing to supervene nor with open arms embrace the inevitability of such an enterprise, only acknowledging that this is indeed what seems to be transpiring in our time. Not something to regret nor optimistically to embrace but to critically appraise, evaluate, study, and discuss as it transpires. If evolutionary theory has taught us anything it is the factual truth that 99% of all species that have ever lived on planet earth are now extinct and we…. sadly or not, may not escape this evolutionary dictum. If not, then what? 

 

5 thoughts on “The Myth of Homo Faber: Prometheus, Epimetheus, and the Predictive Mind

  1. On Prometheus… Lewis Hyde notes in Trickster Makes This World that Prometheus is singularly inept at the most important part of being a trickster: getting away with it. In one myth, humans originally had fire, but Zeus took it away from them. Prometheus was trying to get the better part of a sacrifice for humans, but Zeus found out and took fire away from humans. So Prometheus tried to get it back – further enraging Zeus and bringing eternal torment for himself and more misery for humans. Thanks, Prometheus! It’s unwittingly apt that he was seized upon by so many champions of the industrial revolution as their ‘hero’. If we’re to make less of a dog’s dinner of technology’s unfolding, we probably need a smarter trickster, like Hermes, in our sights.

    I wrote a piece on Prometheus in relation to Ray Brassier’s thought, maybe of interest: https://polarcosmology.com/blog/ray-brassier-prometheanism/

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      • Reading through parts of your website reminded me of Richard Tarnas’ project that began with Passions of the Western Mind and Cosmos and Psyche.

        Over and over this need of humans to narrate the order of the universe along side the scale of human finitude breaks out. Modernity was a strict attack on the Aristotelian cosmos of the Great Chain of Being which underpinned the Catholic West, while postmodernism tried to wipe away all grand narratives, etc. In the end humans cannot live in nothingness or a void, they need objects and attachments for their antagonistic drives. For me the cosmological mythologies provide a key to the human creature in a way that typifies and codifies our internal psychic needs and our secret wish to find some corollary between humanity and its environment. Even now the sacred cosmos is used by transhumanist thought in a secularized way that promotes this fusion of man and machine as the new immortality syndrome. Another religious perspective seeking transcendence from organic necessity. Even in their flawed diagnosis both Norman O. Brown (Life Against Death) and Ernst Becker (Escape From Evil) focused on this immortalism at the heart of Western ideology and psychic cosmology.

        I need to pick up a copy of your book… sounds interesting. Like you I’ve spent fifty years reading diverse aspects of our cultural biography through the lens of various networks of thought and imagination. In a nihil world one seeks a way out of the void that is not a recursion to the outmoded cosmologies of past eras, and yet that does not itself portray any stable and unambiguous mode of participatory cosmos but rather one that allows for an open ended and ongoing critical gaze into the mystery. Without mystery our minds would be locked into a circle of closed and controlled, totalized systems of belief and faith that would even under the auspices of scientific reason bring us to dead world of programmed idiocy. To escape these traps of reason we still invest our energy in art and play, the unbinding of intellect and imagination toward the new and unfolding unknown unknowns.

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      • Yes, definitely overlap between our perspectives. I enjoyed Tarnas’ Passion, though I couldn’t get into Cosmos & Psyche – for whatever reason, astrology has never done anything for me, even though I see its critical importance for all manner of esoteric traditions I’m interested in.

        I think I have a dual intent in trying work out my own cosmological story, to simultaneously acknowledge our fundamental need for such stories, and to acknowledge the reality of their ultimate emptiness. Running with just one aspect doesn’t work, right? Working out a story which involves our hunter-gatherer past is part of this. HG cultures often lack what we see see as ‘religion’ (belief in an afterlife, transcendent meaning, etc.). There’s always some undercurrents in civilised religion which seem to have carried this torch (I’m currently reading Nishitani’s excellent Religion and Nothingness – have you come across this?). This then connects through to our modern struggle with nihilism, which you seem well versed in. Maybe part of managing this struggle is to get away from seeing it as a purely modern thing, to connect it to religious approaches to ‘nothingness’, and our primal HG avoidance of transcendent grounding. Of course this notion of a ‘primal HG culture’ is unavoidably creating a grand human narrative, even though at the same time it’s grounding it in the idea of immanent, narrative-dissolving contingency.

        But then – I don’t know. The modern struggle with nihilism involves ongoing technological shifts which perhaps do mark it as lacking precedents. Maybe there’s still some case for the relevance of the pre-modern mindset to these shifts, though – Erik Davis is one of the best at capturing this I think: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=op5IMDp4nyw

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      • Nishitani’s works from the mid sixties onward were excellent! I think with the breakdown of the enlightenment progressive tradition in the past 60 years we’ve been transitioning into a more hypermodern era of global vision. Not a universal vision of monoculture but more like what happens in such places as India where a multidiverse and even antagonistic set of traditions seem to coexist in a sea of turmoil and yet survive their violence at the local level.

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