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Power vs Meaning: The Trade-off of the 21st century?

The Trade-off of the 21st Century

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“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

In his book, Homo Deus, Harari discusses the trade-off between power and meaning, essentially saying that in the 21st century, we have allowed technology to move us away from the realm of meaning (religion) and into the realm of power (technology).

Religion imbued people’s lives with meaning because it assured them that their actions in this life mattered, that a supernatural being designed them with purpose. These beliefs gave people a sense of hope, that their suffering would not be in vain, since things happened for a reason.

But according to Harari, religion has strings attached. In return for feeling that your life has purpose and is meaningful, you would not try to tamper with creation, you would accept that your conditions on earth were a product of a higher will, and you should accept your limitations.

“but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die”

Genesis 2:17

After the enlightenment, humanity has set itself on the course towards higher knowledge, and has never looked back, and consequently, has experienced a fundamental shift in perception when it comes to their place in the cosmos.

Whereas before, man believed that he was the center of creation because of the existence of God, now he has taken matters into his own hands, and through a combination of science, commerce, and politics, is attempting to overcome famine, disease, and even death.

But modern science takes the opposite view, that we are an insignificant species that have accidentally found ourselves in the position that we are in. Today, if any humans believe they are center of creation, it is not because we think a designer wanted it to be so, but because we have made it so.

This line of thought is only possible because of the striking progress that science has made over the last four centuries. As our confidence in our abilities to control nature has grown, so have our ambitions, but there is a fatal trade-off. In return for living in a world that is under our control, where we need not fear ‘bad luck’, where we are never bored, we have lost our sense of meaning.

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche

The ‘Death of God’ proclaimed by Nietzsche is exactly this. It is the realization that religion no longer has a hold over the lives of all people but is now only a matter of opinion. You can choose to believe in God, of course, but it would also be acceptable if you didn’t. Moral convictions are not based on the conclusions by religious authorities, but by individuals themselves.

Despite the increasing certainty we have achieved with regards to our knowledge about the world, our knowledge about what is beyond it is neither reliable nor relevant to what we want to accomplish.

The brain power that is invested in deconstructing holy scripture will have no impact on the world compared to the brain power that is invested in scientific discovery.

The Deal of Spirituality  

But Harari contradicts himself when he discusses spirituality, which to him, unlike religion, offers human beings no deal. With spirituality, there is nothing you can exchange in return for anything, since there are no promises.

But Harari is wrong about this point. If spirituality is indeed a journey, it is also a deal, but it is just a different kind of deal – that is, it is an open-ended deal. The spiritual journey is a sacrifice that one decides to take for the purpose of attaining peace, nirvana, acceptance, wisdom, or self-knowledge. Nobody would attempt to go on a spiritual journey, even to wander aimlessly, if they didn’t think there would be any benefit to it.

Harari conflates ‘aimlessness’ with ‘expectation’. Just because I don’t have a direct target, does not mean I don’t have expectations. A person who practices music for many hours may not have a final destination in mind, but from the onset, he expects that he will eventually be able to compose a melody.

Finally, one cannot say that religion imposes a deal whereas spirituality does not because the former is externally imposed.

Religion is just as ambiguous, and just as open to interpretation, to spirituality – which explains why it is even possible for theological scholars to spend their entire lives deconstructing scripture.

There is no telling what is on the other side of the deal when it comes to spirituality, but this is a different proposition from saying there is nothing on the other side, and thus there is no deal.

If there is something on the other side, anything, then like religion, spirituality is also a deal.

Between Power and Meaning

The other issue is that there is no real trade-off between power and meaning, when it comes to spirituality.

In psychotherapy, two main schools of thought seem to draw on this trade-off – the Victor Frankl school and the Alfred Adler school. The former advocates the pursuit of meaning while the latter advocates the pursuit of power.

If Harari is right, and spirituality exists as a tenable option for modern day humans, there does not have to be any loss of meaning that has been gained by our new powers. A person who embarks on a spiritual journey cannot be said to be living a meaningless life, even if he is surrounded by supercomputers, and flat screens.

The worst that can be said is that our power has distracted us from meaning, since man is no longer lonely (internet), and is less connected to his deepest thoughts, but not that power and meaning are mutually exclusive. There is a difference between saying that a trade-off exists between two things, and saying that they are different.

It is undoubtedly true that the pursuit of power, as advocated by Nietzsche and Adler, may sometimes conflict with the pursuit of meaning, but this is not necessarily the case. A politician who strives to rid his government in corruption is an obvious example of both requirements being met.

In fact, it is easy to think of how power and meaning can be complementary.

Through meaning, power becomes possible, because the individual is energized to work, and to consequently reap the fruits of his labor and become more powerful.

When someone feels that their lives have a purpose, any kind of purpose, this gives them the power to move forward with confidence. A doctor and musician believe that what they are doing is meaningful, and this belief, if it is strong enough, can be the catalyst to their rise to power.

Through power, meaning becomes tenable,

When someone has power, they can design their future experiences in a way that is congruent with their internal sense of meaning. If I have the ability to do anything I want, I will not pursue a path that I see no meaning in, but the exact opposite, whether it is seeking knowledge, or art, or building new things, or forming relationships with others. The more I am capable of doing these things, the more likely I am to do them.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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