Balancing Technology and Self-Knowledge with Walker Percy

We are a people utterly dedicated to the future, to innovation, and to change. However, the number of science fiction movies that have defined our culture is vanishingly small. All we really have by way of insightful, impressive, popular art is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). This is strange and should give us pause: How come we’ve run out of visions of the future we can embrace?

Briefly put, our problem is a great split between popularity and insight. Our most popular movies are too obsessed with individualism and clueless about our predicament. Thus, they have no legacy or staying power. I humbly suggest that the way out of this impasse was described for our benefit in the closing sections of Walker Percy’s 1983 ironic self-help book Lost in The Cosmos.

Science and Nihilism

From Percy’s point of view, stories of scientific heroism premised on individualism leave us with nihilism (think Black Mirror), which is necessarily and permanently unpopular in America, however prestigious it gets. Such political and scientific ambitions abandon any community. But the popular stories about our common fate are paranoid and hysterical, denying human dignity out of fear that our modern science, both natural and political, is destined to wipe us out (think Matrix).

This is because our sci-fi is not open to the soul’s longings for eroticism, community, and faith. Our writers and directors, the poets of our age, want to confront the stark realities of entropy and mortality in a hopeless existentialist mood which gives little account of love, friendship, family, and religion. They want to examine our humanity from the point of view of aliens, to find out the truth about who we are. They forget, however, to examine the limits of our attempt to escape ourselves and improve ourselves through social transformations or technology.  We are forever ahead of ourselves, in each new fantasy that promises relief from self-doubt. We’re forever catching up with ourselves at the same time, so that whatever we try fails to satisfy. From exotic travel to spiritual fads to new technologies, nothing gets older faster than novelty. Thus, they agonize over our radical incompleteness and our dangerous powers of self-creation through technology without questioning the premises of the most individualistic version of liberalism now available. An empirical study of the effects of technology on our lives would have to include our enduring nature, not just our historical changes.

We all need Percy’s help, to escape the prison of the self that searches for itself. The closing section of Lost in The Cosmos is titled “A Space Odyssey” and deals with our desire to find relief from ourselves in aliens. Percy takes aliens seriously, because we all do, and even famous scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking did. Percy says we’re in real trouble if both average men and the most authoritative “knowers” are all desperate to find someone to talk to out there in the universe. They won’t be denied and they will be tempted to forget that the only talking they can do is with other people. Scientific fantasies often carry with them secret contempt for our shared humanity. Belief in aliens correlates with disillusionment with humans.

So, to help us understand this challenge, Percy conceives two alternate realities set in the near future where mankind sends an expedition into deep space. He intended to confront us with the possibilities: Either we encounter aliens or we don’t. The first story is a fantasy about human explorers visiting a paradise where aliens use superior technology in peaceful ways—to solve, through knowledge, the political problem. In the second, without aliens, a man gets to choose the future of mankind, whether we become the aliens we seek by going out in space, or whether we become willing to understand how alien we really are on earth and try to make the best of our nature.

Aliens Don’t Need Us, But We Think We Need Them

These aliens Percy introduces in his first story resemble Swift’s talking horses from Gulliver’s Travels, the Houyhnhnms, and compared to them, we are savages, killing each other for no good reason and threatening our entire race with nuclear holocaust. In this light, our search for super-intelligent aliens is a form of self-contempt, a way to indict humanity before the bar of science. The problem with this fantasy is that such philosophical aliens would have nothing to do with us, because they wouldn’t share our insanity and would be able to defend themselves from it. We’d end up just as alone even with aliens. In the story, after judging their human visitors to be Yahoos, the aliens send the human refugees away to another equally-disturbed interstellar civilization.

Percy agrees with our scientists and our poets that a thorough self-examination would reveal how screwed up we are. What’s so distinctive about Percy’s account is that he disagrees with conventional scientists about why we are that way and what we could do about it. He first sides with the poets against the scientists. The alien fantasy is the secret wish of people like Sagan or Hawking to rule us because of their superior intellects. But if our scientists had self-knowledge, they would jump from political impotence to indifference without the intermediary step of scientific tyranny. Perhaps the aliens the scientists seek are angels—but our scientists, like ourselves, necessarily remain merely human, and blinded by their materialism to the realities that might give them pause.

Percy uses this story of an alien encounter to reconcile to us to our cosmic loneliness. He chides our poets for forgetting technology is not the real cause of our discontent. We, like our scientists, are not satisfied with what we’ve got. Good enough is never good enough for us—because however good we might have it, we’re still merely mortal and must soon relinquish all our achievements, possessions, and pleasures. This is why we’re tempted by individualism to abandon our communities. Sure, America might endure for centuries, but not you and me—so why bother with a common good when it does nothing for our private good?

Percy indulges our wanderlust to reveal that our fictional scientific adventuring cannot lead to any lasting satisfaction. If we heard the truth about ourselves, if aliens gave us self-knowledge—we would reject it, even if we knew it to be true. We’re too self-important. If freedom does not make us happy, we’ll still defend our freedom to wreak havoc in our lives. We’d choose war over submission to authority, even scientific authority.

Percy describes the crew of this ill-fated expedition in order to show that those who are tempted to abandon humanity for scientific adventure ignore the evil in their own hearts, and thus the inescapable character of human nature, so that they may then dedicate themselves, as they should, to a common good. Thus, even astronauts free from mankind’s crazy history kill each other for no good reason, even on a mission intended to prove mankind is rational and looking for perpetual peace away from our crazy Cold War politics. And even scientific men and women on that mission, liberated from Puritanism and marriage, make each other miserable, misunderstanding their eroticism. Neither individually nor collectively can they come to an understanding of what love and sex are that allows them peace of mind, if not some greater happiness.

He goes further to concede that we moderns are suicidal—the more we accumulate power, the more reckless we become in an existential sense. We are endlessly haunted by the prospect of some unpredictable thing, beyond our control, destroying us. Our powers don’t make us happy, so we cannot help fantasizing about self-destruction. He admits we might come to a nuclear holocaust, but he denies that this would change our predicament. We would, if we survived, still have to choose between a common good within the limits of mortality and the quest for immortality at the price of community.

Build Community in the Ruins

Hence Percy’s second story, where a hero named for the most famous Stoic, Marcus Aurelius Schuyler, is given the choice between starting a scientific colony on Jupiter’s moon Europa and trying to survive in Lost Cove, Tennessee. Europa is a fantasy of human power, youth, health, and adventure. Lost Cove, however, includes deformity, misery, old age, and faith. Percy moves from scientific to political ambition, the desire to be a founder, silently suggesting that this is the poets’ real job.

He thus asks, could a politician identify with the human race in the abstract and start a scientific humanity without strong attachments? That’s Elon Musk these days, all-American as you like, but ignorant that America was colonized by Puritans. Would a new founder have to rely on the personal loyalties of family and faith, even if he’s really skeptical about both? That’s Percy’s portrayal of our Founders, whether George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, who insisted on practicing Stoic moral and intellectual virtues and argued for a similar self-reliance for all American citizens.

Percy leaves the decision to us and only asks that we consider our fundamental alternatives. If we insist on denying that faith and love are essential to our being, we will remain lost in the cosmos, that is: alienated from ourselves. This is most of our sci-fi. In light of this, we should take the best our sci-fi can do and put it in the service of our personal relationships, our only path to self-knowledge. Then we’d understand that we’re both lost in the cosmos and at home in our loves. That, of course, would mean accepting disease, old age, and death—and nevertheless loving each other, as much as we are able. The reward for this humility would be a release from paranoia and self-contempt, for what we see of ourselves in those we love and who love us in return we can endure fondly.

Percy balances technology with self-knowledge and thus reveals that we are not capable of bringing history to an end, whether utopian or dystopian. His humility opens up new avenues for science fiction, for it includes the great ambition to recover the greatest traditions we have inherited and to find new ways to live with the knowledge about how screwed-up we are. Instead of prophesying doom, our poets could again try to educate our politicians. Like Jonathan Swift, Percy knows that our future includes strange, barely recognizable versions of the many possibilities of our nature, which we have forgotten with our history, and which we will have to confront if we’re going to survive and thrive.