arthur c. clarke




ira laughing
Ira Laughing



    Arthur C. Clarke argued that the accomplishments of any sufficiently advanced science were indistinguishable from magic as the primitive mind conceived it.
    Clarke was certainly not promoting magic. He was undertaking a phenomenological analysis of how we register certain experiences. By his reckoning, the glamour that marks the boundaries between magic and ordinary experience keeps changing. When science advances, it pushes back the frontiers of magic. However, following an historical catastrophe in which scientific knowledge was lost, particularly if parts of the technology remained behind for the “new primitives” to marvel over, magical understandings would advance.
    We must not take a one-sided view. As science advances, for instance, skills once considered ordinary get to seem magical. They languish on the fringes of possibility. Few can now track game from faint signs, or know the medicinal uses of thousands of native plants or predict the weather by the fur of animals or hear earthquakes coming, or commune with the spirits of the ancestors by detecting the tracery of their presence in places they frequented or objects they used. Who can enter animal consciousness, whisper to horses, and shift the energy fields in the body sufficiently to induce mass hallucinations, conduct shamanic cures, detect the meridian lines in Chinese medicine or follow ley lines on the earth? A great deal of knowledge about nature, including verifiable techniques for inducing change, has probably been lost in the advance of science. And should the sciences wane in a new dark age, they won’t necessarily come back.
    Therefore, if “magic” is a moving locus of the inexplicable, if that is all it is, we can expect there always to be magic because there will always be fuzziness on the borderlands where we lose old things and discover new ones. The magical/technological frontiers will keep shifting as long as there is something new to learn and something old to forget, and we have no idea where the waves of change will take us.


    Some thinkers maintain that belief in God or the Sacred is essential to our happiness, that our nagging meaninglessness is loneliness for God, that we have pushed God out of the modern world by the power of the outer over the inner, and this has led to the eclipse of all genuine religious experience communally experienced. Robert Coles argues this way in The Secular Mind.
    He tries to cross the phenomenological/ontological frontier by taking a hard look his own inwardness, an effort he considers “the last gasp of the sacred.”

“One prays at the very least on behalf of one’s own kind, though unsure, in a secular sense, to whom or what such prayer is directed, other than, needless to say, one’s own secular mind, ever needy of an otherness’ to address…”

    C. S. Lewis took a much stronger position. He argued that we could not do without God because God exists. The incarnation was real. Jesus came down to earth in a virgin birth. He lived, died, and rose from the tomb.

                                       Annunciation -- Fra Angelico

    Arnold Toynbee, a practicing Christian of the same generation, believed that Western civilization could only solve the world problems through a renewed faith in the Christian God. The Enlightenment failed precisely because it lost this faith. Christian ethics alone won’t do. We need to pray.

“And, inasmuch as it cannot be supposed that God’s nature is less constant than Man’s, we may and must pray that a reprieve that God has granted to our society once will not be refused if we ask for it again in a humble spirit and with a contrite heart.”36


    My take is that secular humanism has not failed. It’s just that the two hundred plus years since the Enlightenment have been too brief a time for us to have developed a firm sense of our own moral convictions. We still do not conceive of ethical choice as central to our experience of life. We haven’t found our own bright inwardness. We do not know where to aim the gratitude that naturally wells up in us on many happy occasions. It seems to want to soar up to some being outside ourselves. But look closely at your own experience and you will see that the sudden surge of gratitude is thankfulness sui generis, in and of the moment entirely. The assignment of the gratitude to a “more”, a “beyond”, is a gratitude that seeks the Helping Hand behind the helping hand. It is often a trick of the mind that makes us forget the courage in action we needed to be fully human.
    Why does gratitude always need a recipient? Isn’t the sudden surging feeling in itself thankfulness for the wholeness and rightness of the present moment? Perhaps we are inclined to thank God because our long infant dependency predisposes us to attach our gratitude to parents. Our infant awe goes to our parents, so we give our adult appreciation to God and from that build a language that refers gratitude to a higher power.
    But bad things happen when we give our gratitude away: we lose hold of our peak experiences; the zest goes out of the passing moment. When we rein in the playfulness of life as a grand improvisation, we turn off the switch that alerts us to the perception of eternity as now, and forget that it certainly cannot exclude now.
    As with “gratitude,” so with “faith” “salvation,” “aspiration” and “atonement.” They have religious connotations. To resume the journey to freedom today requires us to struggle against the shackles of language itself. The language of ethical inwardness, in all its nuances and associations, still belongs to religion by default. We have not yet developed a secular language for ethical choice. The simplest hopes and fears have theological resonances: forgiveness, compassion, justice, forbearance, patience, redemption and sacrifice all trail back to God. We can barely receive our deepest inward apercus without entangling them in theocratic or magical language. Which means we cannot conceive of our choices clearly – or our responsibility for them.
    Future psychologists will understand that we experience the phenomenologically bracketed “magical”, “mystical” and “providential” in the mundane world whenever the enhanced power of intention, ignited in turning points, thrusts us into the present, awakens us to beauty, and elicits from us surges of energy, alertness and enthusiasm.
    What we feel most immediately then is a frisson, a thrill that reflects the sudden coming into place of a new set of passing rules and model change. The experience of the passing rules forming on the mind/body edge links our exteroceptive with our interoceptive interests. It hints at possibilities for the reunion of self and world, just as the presence of the magus in the experimental situation seemed to stamp the field of endeavor with a more complete pattern of human nature – but this time for real.
    Kepler, on discovering the laws of planetary motion, wrote of his moment: “that for which I have devoted the best part of my life to astronomical contemplation, for which I joined Tycho Brahe… at last I have brought it to light, and recognized its truth beyond all my hopes… So now since eighteen months ago the dawn, three months ago the proper light of day, and indeed a very few days ago the pure Sun itself of the most marvelous contemplation has shone forth… nothing holds me.”37  Michael Polyani paraphrases this as “Having made a discovery, I shall never see the world again as before. My eyes have become different; I have made myself into a person seeing and thinking differently.”
    What we needed when we woke up from our long entrancement to religion was a slow and measured inward journey to the guiding forces of ethical discovery, not a simple or dreamy passage contrary to common sense, but a fierce one, clearly and strongly debated. What we got instead was an outward shove into exploration, enterprise, industry and expansion. We never had the time to make sustained contact with our own creative inwardness. Confronted with the amazing vigor of the technical mind in its alliance with aggressive ambition in the Industrial Revolution, we defaulted on our wholeheartedness. As the naïve promises failed and the emptiness overwhelmed us, we retreated to existential grit, to spiritual stoicism, to solipsism, to magical thinking or to faith in divine providence.


    With secular minds, we will treat life less as tragedy than comedy, a deep comedy, the human comedy. People will deal with the flaws in human nature with more humor and less revulsion. Devoted Sancho Panzas will protect their beloved Don Quixotes.
don quixote
    We will accept our turning points as comic resolutions. For humor manifests in all resolutions. We feel it bubble up in the experience of relief itself. To be occupied totally by a laugh in a crucial moment, liberates the energy for creative achievements.
Humor puts us in the present. A good laugh clears the mind. It makes the foibles of our struggles for authenticity tolerable. Kierkegaard, in his early life, before he was distracted by religion, wrote that in the hardest times mastered irony has redeeming power. It “limits, renders finite, defines, and thereby yields truth, actuality, and content… He who does not understand irony… lacks eo ipso what might be called the absolute beginning of the personal life.”38
With ironic detachment, we can laugh at the power of our emotions to tie us in knots. The laugh, while it lasts, or when we recall it later, teaches us not to grieve over our deficiencies and inadequacies. It sees the grief as another trick of the mind to keep us out of action. With irony, we cut ourselves down to size. Kierkegaard concluded

“In order not to be distracted by the finite, by all the relativities of the world, the ethicist places the comical between himself and the world…The ethicist is… ironical enough to perceive that what interests him absolutely does not interest the others absolutely; this discrepancy he apprehends, and sets the comical between himself and them, in order to be able to hold fast to the ethical in himself with still greater inwardness.”39


    Happier, more self-
blake ethchingdeprecating, in closer touch with the engines of history, and with a better understanding of our own temperaments and motivations, we may yet develop new kinds of “spirituality”. We’ll withdraw the projection of gratitude from an unfathomable Beyond. We’ll start to grow up. We’ll understand why the Buddha launched a spiritual movement that treated God as a mental projection and taught his students that deeds undertaken for a mental projection were actually deeds done for oneself. I am not espousing an atheistic or agnostic position here. God keeps his own mysteries. If the Creator wants to speak to me, I’m ready to listen, even if it kills me. But doesn’t there come a time when the baby must learn to walk on his or her own? Mightn't even a good God, with a providential interest in humanity, withdraw His hands from supporting us so that we can know what it is like to stand or fall on our own? With our sense of meaningfulness in our own hands we would have to use our evolved equipment to lead us not back to God’s cradle but ahead to life in community. For loving community is our soundest spiritual home. Love and wisdom are designed by nature to hold us together in it. In the arms of community genuine happiness, meaning, creativity, moral choice and full belonging can thrive.

As Einstein wrote,

“In their struggles for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True and the Beautiful in humanity itself.”
(Albert Einstein Science and Religion. 1941.)

    Ursula Le Guin has her main character wrestling with this problem of terminology in The Telling. Travelling as an observer among the suppressed indigenous people of the planet Aka, she notes:

“There are no Akan words for God. Gods, the divine,” she told her noter…”On Aka, god is a word without referent. No capital letters. No creator, only creation. No eternal father to ward and punish, justify injustice, ordain cruelty, offer salvation. Eternity not an endpoint but a continuity… No afterlife, no rebirth, no immortal disembodied or reincarnated soul. No heavens, no hells. The Akan system is a spiritual discipline with spiritual goals, but they’re exactly the same goals it seeks for bodily and ethical well-being. Right action is its own end. Dharma without karma.

“She had long debates with her noter about whether any word in Dozvan or in the older and partly non-Dozvan vocabulary used by ‘educated people’ could be said to mean sacred or holy. There were words she translated as power, mystery, not-controlled-by-people, part-of-harmony. These terms were never reserved for a certain place or type of action.”40

    As with the Akans, our spirituality will be secular and non-theistic someday. We will build it on our direct experience of the transience of the self, an illusion-free spirituality. We will get to it not by recovering truths from ancient times but in a series of scientific discoveries. Our demeanor will not have the ‘late imperial’ tone of Roman Stoicism. It will not be skeptical, cynical, ascetic or epicurean.
    We will have epiphanies and ecstasies and we will trust their wholesomeness. Our spiritual system will affirm the power of turning points, personally and historically. We will accept their cosmic role in restoring wholeness. We will take on the Cabalistic principle that the turning from below evokes a turning from above. A turning from here, now, a turning that turns the whole from within.


    With secular spirituality stabilized by a firmer hold on inwardness, the ethical mind will flourish. We will live more modern and venturesome lives than we do now. We will experience the convergence of love and wisdom.
    In practice, these changes will expand the ‘aggredi‘ of good aggression and prepare us to enter new fields of action safely.
    Should this happen, we will have changed the human nature in ourselves by ourselves, changed it as we did before in the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. And new deep currents will stream through us into the world. We will be a little older, just out of childhood, adolescents perhaps, but no longer infantile. (Childhood’s End has been a recurrent theme in science fiction.) Our 6,000 years of recorded history will turn out to be an early stage in human history. We will have taken ourselves to the beginning of our young maturity.
    We will still be wild, untamed, restive and bold, barely out of our teenage years, but our creative juices will be flowing. With nationhood and religiosity behind us, we will build a new planetary culture with vigor and hope, precisely the spirit befitting a young world civilization attaining its first maturity.
    Then the global civilization, conscious of the approach/separation, withdrawal/return and dispersal/aggregation rhythms that move us through the natural world, will reach the threshold of its next stage. We will leap off the planet. The age of space colonization will begin wholeheartedly. We will find our way to the moons and planets of the solar system, and then beyond, in the great pulse of dispersal, roughly analogous to the Renaissance mariners’ discovery of the New World that led to the modern world.     The great dynamic of human civilization will continue to unfold: migration followed by settling, followed by migration, followed by settling. As Freeman Dyson put it,

“The destiny which I am preaching is not the expansion of a single nation or of a single species, but the spreading out of life in all its multifarious forms from its confinement on the surface of our small planet to the freedom of a boundless universe. This unimaginably great and diverse universe, in which we occupy one fragile bubble of air, is not destined to remain forever silent. It will one day be buzzing with the murmur of innumerable bees, rustling with the flurry of feathered wings, throbbing with the patter of little human feet.”41
                             milky way
    On this pathway, our main achievements will not be in biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, space travel or any of the other amazing technologies. Those advancements may come, they almost certainly will, but we will take them in stride without celebrating them as the apex of human accomplishment. They will give us new products, treatments, processes, vehicles that take us where we want to go; they will be means to an end and not ends in themselves. The important thing will be where we want to go and why. The power sources for it may be solar arrays or nuclear fusion plants. But the call to adventure will be the real energy and the choices we make with it will come from the creative power of the ethical mind expressing its good judgment in community life - which means that our real breakthroughs will rest on new family, marriage and community relations. And the outflow of our new emergent skills will be nurtured in those venues.
    In those days, the wider expressions of human nature will come into the world with less dependency on mechanical devices or techniques, because love and wisdom will be their sources and we will gather them as essentially moral energies in the time sensitive freedom of our turning points. We will feel more comfortable living a full community life. We will trust its benefits and let ourselves enjoy real safety.
On this cultural avenue, we will live compliant to the times. With fuller consciousness, we will learn to recognize and connect with our real opportunities and to seize them when they come. And we will find these close to hand, because doing what is close to hand is our perpetual starting place and there is always something to do close to hand.
    Our transformational changes inevitably enter the world where our feet touch the ground, where we wake from sleep, where we first make eye contact in the circles of affiliation around us. However, not everything close to hand ought to be undertaken because not everything is relevant or ready.
    We will develop skills for knowing the right moments and the right combinations. We will know both restraint and license. We will become proficient users of low-mediated intentions. The baby will learn to walk.

    A Native American saying sums it all up. I believe I read it inb Lame Deer's book. “The white man builds a big fire and sits far away, the Indian builds a small fire and sits close up.”
    The thinking behind this suggests that there is a path on which we can use self-regulation strategies (some based on internal mind/body techniques) to readjust our relationship to technology. We don’t always need a big fire. We can stay warm by sitting close up to a small one or by self-regulating our thermal physiology. To an extent based on our mind/body skills, we have the means to acquire what external technology supplies  with a much lower expenditure of energy and materials. (Thoreau used a similar formulation concerning warmth in Walden.)
    The point I am making here is that action-oriented low-mediated intentions we discussed earlier follow the path of the small fire. And on certain fannings of possibility, I foresee this route of development bringing with it not only new human capabilities but new sorts of technology that will reduce energy use, lead us to discover new renewable resources, including some internal to ourselves, and give us a deeper reverence for and closer contact with nature. Under certain fannings of possibility I can foresee us changing the thrust of technology altogether. On these radials of destiny, we would continue to invent more daringly than ever, but our devices, culled from a deeper human-heartedness, would serve new purposes. They would become instruments that teach us how to free ourselves from them, akin to biofeedback monitoring devices. In medical technology, for instance, we would make heart pacemakers that eliminate the need for pacing by retraining the heart, electronic implants that grow new tissue and replace themselves, etc.
    We’d develop a wider learning model. Our focus would shift from therapy to education. Education in inwardness would thrive, deepening our connection with subtle energy sources inside us and with the rhythms in nature. Moreover, these would open new theoretical approaches to inducing change  by efficient means.
    In certain scenarios I can even envision us developing new sensory, cognitive and imaginative faculties: electromagnetic senses beyond the visual spectrum (already operating in the electrochemical gradients on cell membranes), radio frequency senses, magnetic senses (that some animals use for location), senses for fabulous agility, dexterity, speed, stamina and focus, combined senses, synesthesias suited for perceiving gestalts.
    Our better understanding of timing will give us a modest edge in predicting likelihoods in personal and historical venues. And with that edge, we will develop better judgment and more peaceful approaches to life than we have now. And this will not only make us more effective citizens, it will gentle us down, because it will eliminate action in excess of what we need to accomplish a goal. And these advancements would make us more punctual and calmer too. We’d be less arrogant and selfish because we’d recognize that much of what we’ve seen as strength of character is really an illusion. We’d be happier and more willing to work together too. Seeing through the veils of illusion with comic immediacy, we might even discover new ways to empower low-mediated intention. We might learn how to bring ourselves into lucid dream states reliably and with full consciousness, to improve insight and foresight through conscious recall, and to facilitate healing. Science fiction writers have treated these subjects for a long time. Ursula Le Guin, in The Telling, presents a recent treatment.


    The four ethical discoveries themselves travel the path of the small fire. By managing to ease the aggressive overload on the stress response they stimulate new self-regulation capabilities. With better voluntary control, we may be able to moderate the byplay between stress and aggression and aid the re-fusion of aggression with love and wisdom, restoring its old conservative function. In times to come these capabilities could work as catalytic agents to spark transformations that bring the ethical and technical mindsets closer together.
    And in small venues, when people are functioning well, their wisdom journeys, tempered by realigned aggression, will produce innovations favor freedom and justice.
    At significant moments, love and wisdom, with modest pressure, will be able to soften and shift dominance and territorial relationships. In the aftermath, entrepreneurial energy will not be so intractably associated with financial profit but will rise to broader adventures, including service and amity and the improvement of life in mixed enterprises, some set up as non-profits, others employee owned, others established as the foundation arms of profit-making corporations.
    As the aggressive components of human nature fall increasingly under the influence of love and wisdom (using the dynamic definitions we have explained here,) our technical and ethical sensibilities will converge too, merge at times, and then pull apart to restore their primordial reciprocal relationship.
    As the new elements in human nature surface from the treasury of the neutral traits, we will reframe many of our old duties and privileges. We will have to reset the stages of life to conform with lengthened life expectancy in the prosperous world, and then worldwide, perhaps extending the period of youth into the fourth decade and middle age to the ninth - after that sagacity.


    Many science fiction novels tell how these things might happen. They depict future human societies whose strengths are not material. Some portray successful human societies enjoying every resource of the arts and sciences, but living in decentralized small communities in balance with nature, many with fully developed non-theistic spiritual practices. The science in these utopian novels is of mind. The plot lines trace the advancement of cognitive abilities. They explore new powers of communication, of joined consciousnesses, of shared dreams, of telepathy and magical repatternings of nature. High technology, space flight, virtual reality, robots and extended life spans play parts in other utopian science fiction novels, but the real excitement in the stories comes from the expansion of human capabilities and the deepening of social ties that come with it.
    Ursula LeGuin in her Earthsea novels, The Dispossessed and The Telling, deals with these possibilities. Dorothy Bryant covers similar ground in The Kin of Atta are Waiting for You, as does Aldous Huxley in Island, Norman Spinrad in Songs from the Stars, Isaac Asimov in the Foundation series (for example, the Second Foundation’s mastery of inner personal change,) Arthur C. Clarke in The City and the Stars and many others. Modern science fiction explores utopian possibilities in ways unequaled since the Renaissance.
    I particularly liked The City and the Stars when I read it long ago. Alvin, its young protagonist, finds his way out of a labyrinthine self-sustaining, million-year-old world city equipped with every imaginable means to support and entertain its vast population, (for the most part happily, peacefully and with respect for personal freedom.) Once outside, Alvin discovers a low-tech, decentralized telepathic civilization living in close touch with nature. He makes friends with the youth there. Together the young people uncover the lost history of their common origins. The mind-centered and technology-centered civilizations join their destiny lines, and that begins a process of reconciliation between the ethical and technical minds.

Convergence on the Path of the Small Fire

    In our present mindset, we deplete the energy for convergent turnings by surrendering to the conflicts between the technical and ethical minds as if they were intractable (see # 184). We are stuck here for three reasons. Our thinking is too linear. We refuse reversal. We cannot move smoothly between inwardness and outwardness. Consequently, we cannot align the turning points in love and wisdom. We pull them apart before they can energize each other. Our loves are blind, our wisdoms cold. This makes us opaque to ourselves and  dangerous to each other.
    Continuing failures of convergence degrade the quality of leadership. The failures spread widely through the population, blighting the growing tip of cultural evolution. When love is absent from wisdom and wisdom from love, parents fail their children and children dishonor their parents.
    But human nature changes and so do its competencies and interests (see # 173.) A shift toward low mediated intentions would stimulate inwardness and support the ethical mind. With better balance between inwardness and outwardness, we will make saner decisions. We will handle perturbation more robustly. We will hold more firmly to the resonances between personal and environmental rhythms. We will return to homeostasis sooner. In this ambiance, love and wisdom will choose (and be able) to reach for each other in crucial, conscious turning points.