Biography, Philosophy, Technology

Roots to remember

When I was growing up in the 1950s and spending summers on my grandparents’ farm in North Carolina, I became strangely aware that we were living in truly radical times.  I say radical because that word comes from Latin radix, meaning “root.”  I could sense that the roots of our civilization were shaking beneath us, even though the civilizational tree still seemed strong and healthy.  Problems with the roots implies problems with the tree.  Dealing with that requires some “radical” thinking, that is, thinking directed to the root of things.  This Word and Fire web site hopes to take some constructive steps in that direction.

My grandparents lived on and made their living from their small farm.  Their home was always warm and welcoming and full of good food and cheer, grounded in the hard and repetitive habits of farm routine:  cows to milk, chickens to feed, fields to plow.  My grandfather plowed them with an old-fashioned plow pulled by a horse named Nell and mule named Kit.  We grandchildren loved to ride Nell, but Kit was a bit too wild and stubborn to ride.   

I loved the open air and freedom of the farm to explore all of its secrets.   I could climb trees, explore the hayloft in the barn, imagine wild animals in the dark woods, enjoy the rain pouring from the roof of the open front porch during an afternoon thunderstorm.  I loved helping Granddaddy pick up the hay bales and stack them on the wooden wagon pulled by Nell and Kit to bear then to the barn.  The bales, of course, were produced by a neighbor’s combine, a mighty clanging machine driven by the neighbor through the fields, magically ejecting the bales from its back end.  This put before the eyes of a young boy the marvels of magical machines and their possibilities. In a different vein, Grandmother intrigued her grandchildren with stories of other marvels from her favorite book, the Bible.

This slow–and in some ways idyllic– world was not to last.  I recall when we got our first TV at home in the 1950s.  We lived in town, not on the farm.  Before we had our own TV we would get together with others at a neighbor’s house to watch this new wonder together with them.  It was my generation that saw the coming of the mass media, telecommunications, cars for everyone, world travel, antibiotics, suburban living, consumerism, and the vast deliverances of technology to remake and control our world.    In the new world of techno-agribusiness, people never more will need to live off the land by plowing with a horse and mule.  My boyish intuition of dramatic change has come to pass.  Future grandchildren will not be able to watch a Kit and Nell pull a wagon, except perhaps through the virtual (un)reality of some  techno-device.

I had never even lived with air conditioning until I stayed in a dormitory in graduate school!  Climate was what nature gave us, and we took what we got.   I now live in a brave new world that is radically transformed, and transforming at an ever more rapid and frenetic pace.    The roots of this new world are grounded in technology, applied science that is weaving the entire world together in a new web of heretofore unimagined possibilities.  Who ever dreamed that the species homo sapiens would literally come to change the face of the planet, raising the possibility we could make it unlivable, either through nuclear holocaust (a fear of my youth), environmental destruction (a conceivable future), or widespread public irrationality (a diabolical fruit of post-Enlightenment Western culture)?

We should not fool ourselves with the nostalgic illusion that we can go back to older and simpler ways of life.  Too much has happened for that.  Furthermore, modernity has brought much good, and not all technology is bad.  Yet, our species is now becoming homo faber, man-the-maker, and threatens to leave behind its former designation, homo sapiens, man-the-wise.  Can we recover wisdom to guide our making, lest humanity perish in a Promethean quest that threatens to spin out of control [1]?  Who or what should be in control?

How did homo sapiens get to its present crisis threatening us with a psycho-techno-dystopia of Humanity 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 , … ?  The roots of the modern, and thus of the post-modern, lie in the pre-modern.  The latter does not cease to hold roots of wisdom and deep rationality that we risk forgetting.  If I could offer some small service to our species, it would be to help us to think radically–that is, think to the root of things–so we can see again things which ultimately we can never fully lose sight of, for they are quite literally written into the very fabric of our being [2].

Humanity can not forever escape its human nature. It is too rooted in us to permit us to become totally deaf to the whispers of transcendence that surround and enfold our every move.  But one’s ear must stay properly attuned.  That most postmodern, yet sanely rational, scientist-philosopher, Michael Polanyi, takes us back to our roots when he tells us “where some hear a noise, others hear a tune.” [3] Is not that the difference between the ancient voices of Democritus and Pythagoras [4]: the one sees only the chaos of the atoms while the other hears the harmony of the spheres?  Might not there be room for both to guide our seeing and hearing, and even more that neither ever dreamed of? None of us has the last word, after all.


[1] The Greek mythological figure of Prometheus stole fire from the gods for humanity’s benefit, and thus provoked the ire of Zeus that led to Prometheus’s eternal torturous punishment.

[2] This is a point of my essay, Word, for BioLogos.

[3] In “Science and Reality,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, vol. 18, p. 177 (1967). Hungarian born polymath Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) came to England in 1933, later becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society. He did seminal work in chemistry (his son John won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986) and in developing a post-Enlightenment philosophy of scientific knowing, emphasizing the personal and tacit dimension of all human knowledge. His thought has greatly guided my own thinking on how scientists know the world.

[4] Democritus  (5th Century BC) is the father of “Greek atomism:” all things are comprised of “atoms and the void.”  The Greek ἄτομον, atomon, means indivisible, uncuttable–atoms were thus to Democritus the most indivisible “particles” of nature out of which all things were made.  In contrast, Pythagoras (6th Century BC) and the Pythagoreans were fascinated by numbers and harmony, discovering mathematical theorems and the mathematical principles of musical scales: all things were ruled by number and harmony.  To put Democritus and Pythagoras together is not to say that all material things are ruled by mathematical laws, but to see that all things material are joined with transcendent principles that are not material themselves: the material and the immaterial, the immanent and the transcendent, are enfolded together in the enactment of the being and becoming of the world as it actually is, and as we know it. Even before Pythagoras, the Hebrew prophets already knew this in their own concrete way, especially in that remarkable Hebrew word חֶסֶד‎, chesed, the steadfast love, the mercy, the grace, by which they were bound in covenant with the One Who Is.