Infinite Progress or Apocalypse?

Prof. Dr. Werner Thiede

How two basic ideological concepts are contradicting each other today.

The twentieth century has advanced the worldwide perception that the idea of progress in itself is a mixed blessing. Two technologically armed World Wars, including the first atomic bombings, have made this just as visible as the ongoing ecological decline of our planet. But in the 21st century, there is a threat that this knowledge could be lost. People everywhere are falling back into the 19th century’s fairly naïve faith in progress. This has to do with the progress of the digital revolution, which the sociologist Ulrich Beck has termed “digital metamorphosis.” It presupposes a radical “advance” in interest in state-of-the-art technology and its capitalistically linked industry and economy. Shoshana Zuboff details the current developments in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019).

If the drawbacks of the digital revolution have been limited relative to their advantages until recently, this is shifting in the wake of “digitalization 2.0.” Computer scientist and philosopher Jaron Lanier clearly states in a newspaper interview that the Internet “does more harm than good.” On the one hand, this brings the mixed blessing of technical progress back into focus. On the other hand, the success of digitization already obscures the view so much that it can no longer be stopped in all its vigor. Thus, Lanier, despite his cited knowledge, significantly propagates digitization.

The transformation of our culture through digitization will continue to accelerate. I call this the digital progress trap. From now on, it’s about more than the ambivalence of progress; it’s about a gigantic, catastrophic trap, or even the emergence of apocalyptic escalation. Totalitarian conditions have been heralded: according to expert estimates, the current digital construction in China will likely take shape similarly here in the West. “Digital dementia” (Manfred Spitzer) is advancing, as is radiation exposure through the 5G mobile network (as I previously discussed in the June 2019 issue of Midnight Call).

Consequently, there are two opposing basic ideological perspectives for modern contemporaries. One is the apocalyptic viewpoint: Our world and human history will inevitably face a catastrophe, thanks to rapidly developing technology (especially in the military). This basically corresponds to the biblical perspective. The other view remains convinced that progress will manage to handle the problems, and continue to move forward. This paradigm, which is still widespread, is worth considering more closely, since it is recognizable today by its political enforcement.

Here, the heart of digitization’s ideological character is revealed. It really doesn’t holistically ask for reason. Instead, it makes sure that the concept, dubious in multiple respects, is pushed through via fragmented arguments, no matter the cost. Therefore, Silicon Valley technocrats, with the prevailing behaviorist beliefs of the region, simply switch on a conception of man according to the dictates of behavioral science, and steer it accordingly. With the seductive power of their sophisticated technologies, they succeed in keeping critical arguments under control and successfully reviving the obsolete model of faith in infinite progress. Apocalyptic thoughts are positively put out of mind and, indeed, don’t actually fit into the digital paradigm.

Ideologically, its logic can at least build on the modern belief in infinite progress. It developed in the Age of Enlightenment, in which society began to strip off the Christian religion like an eggshell of immaturity, or “demythologize.” In particular, the Christian end-time perspective was increasingly dismissed. This was almost a hallmark of modern cultural Protestantism, which essentially goes back to the redefining of the apocalyptic concept of the kingdom of God as a cultural theory term coined by Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. From modern Enlightenment philosophy, rationalist thinkers continued to advocate the concept of a progressus in infinitum, infinite progress. Even Thomas Hobbes, Christian Wolff, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz equated humanity’s achievement of ever more goals with the highest good. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing even supported this idea by incorporating the unbiblical concept of transmigration of the soul. Romantic and German idealist theoreticians, such as Friedrich Schlegel and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, readily spoke of an “infinite” or “unbreakable progress.”

But in his book The World View of Physics, 20th century philosopher and scientist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker pointed to a crucial problem with the concept of infinite progress: Modern science and technology are transmitting an attribute of God onto the world. Dr. Karl Hecht of Charité University Hospital in Berlin sees such self-deification of modern man as approaching a catastrophe. In 2019, he stated that technological digitization is the straw that breaks the back of the camel of unbelief, and threatens the health and life of humankind.

In fact, digitization 2.0 behaves as if it wants to autonomously realize the attributes of God. That’s why it inevitably takes on the character of a substitute religion, not least because it also promises individual immortality as technologically feasible. Due to the postulate that the highest good can only be achieved in infinite progress, Kant considered immortality to be a proposition of practical reason. As a result, the belief that advanced technology will be able to defeat death logically follows from belief in infinite progress in the wake of digitization. Lanier reports in this regard, “The normal craziness of the world isn’t enough for Silicon Valley. Going about my day, there is nothing unusual at all about running into a friend at the coffee shop who is a for-real, serious scientist working on making people immortal.”

The concept of infinite progress allows for utopian goals: “The goal is liberation from the limits of nature and from all ‘external’ powers that have historically been beyond our reach,” explains Friedrich Rapp in his 1992 book Fortschritt (“Progress”). But in this way, mankind is unintentionally building hell rather than the kingdom of heaven on earth (forgetting that all technology is definitively bound to the “carbon world,” and can’t truly leave the natural basic constants behind). Mankind believes in a self-constructed illusion and elevates it to a realized ideology. What it ignores is the reality of death, a phenomenon observed since industrialization! Man as “doer,” as increasingly technically dominant, can’t stand being at death’s mercy. According to Sigmund Freud (who was practically made into a god and was deeply convinced of his own immortality), mankind can’t be persuaded that he is still mortal. Therefore, we make it as strictly taboo as possible, especially in high-tech culture, which must feel the sting of death to be uniquely challenging. The idea of infinite progress recognizes itself to be colossal: since we want to free ourselves from the limits of nature, we try to supplant the nature of death—making it no longer simply spiritual, but also technological. Mankind is striving for digital victory over death, and quickly: In a quarter century, it should be ready!

But two things are overlooked in this escalation of faith in progress. On the one hand, neurologist Todd E. Feinberg believes it can be safely assumed that “the human race will never decide that an advanced computer possesses consciousness.” Likewise, Reinhold Popp, head of the Center for Future Studies at the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences (Austria), denies that the complexity of human consciousness can be transferred to a machine. On the other hand, it’s important to bear in mind that even if such a transfer were technically successful in some digital future, thereby cheating death, there wouldn’t be any religiously understood immortality or resurrection. The generated “pseudo-soul” or constructed avatar would be nothing more than a simulation, a “replica” of that particular individual. As the Word of Jesus remains to remind us, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matt 16:26). And at the same time, a fundamental fact: Our planet Earth will pass away, as will our entire galaxy, probably at the end of our universe. It is scientifically guaranteed that digital technology has a temporary future at best.

The modern concept of progress carries a logical miscalculation within itself. It’s based on the axiom of infinite increase in technical progression, without sufficiently considering the simple fact that everything in the world, including the world itself, is finite. Therefore, the colossal promises of salvation offered by the digital revolution must, upon closer examination, be exposed as hollow and untrustworthy, and rejected.

But where such belief in infinite progress prevails, there is, for all intents and purposes, no potential for perception of apocalyptic threats. The corresponding occurrences of such events are not perceived as catastrophic, but are accepted as the consequence of the cybernetic transformation of reality. Warnings about the escalating dangers resulting from increasing digitization are no longer grasped, and are even considered obsolete. They are unwelcome doomsday prophecies. The standards of thought are already crazy today. Our organs of perception of basic and global dangers are already stunted a bit, so that they only function in a muted capacity.

However, from a biblical perspective, anticipating the power of God also absolutely belongs to apocalyptic thinking. If there is a new heaven and a new earth; if there is immortality for man and an effective victory over death, then it comes only from God! “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor 15:55). Such a triumphant exclamation can only exist where there is faith in resurrection from death, and it is hoped for as a gift of God. But this unsurpassable basic hope should be preserved against the worldly belief in salvation through digitization, with which the assumption of undeniable technological risks is legitimized. The apocalyptic idea of the coming of God is combined with that of the final judgment! Hasn’t modern belief in progress also miscalculated by not anticipating God’s judgment, and therefore believing that basic ethical principles (human dignity, provision, thoughtful charity, etc.) can be subordinated to its own principle of unrestricted fulfillment of whatever is feasible, with impunity?

Theologically, we can fundamentally distinguish between belief in infinite progress (to which so-called liberal theology is attached) and the apocalyptically-oriented belief that God is certainly allowing mankind’s history to fall into self-imposed ruin, to finally bring creation to completion in due course. Whoever possesses Christian hope follows a deep logic that is by no means beyond human reason. To the contrary, upon further inspection, faith in progress proves to be an ideologically inflated, downright foolish construct with nihilistic implications. The hope based in the Bible is more meaningful to him or her in every respect, and is ultimately more ethically humane. The fact that the ideology of digitization, which is currently in power, seeks to shape our culture should at least alarm Christians. If many church-governing bodies currently want to bring more digitization into the churches, they’re on the wrong track. They misunderstand the ideological background of the technocratic expansion project—and its apocalyptic horizon.

Midnight Call - 09/2019

ContactAbout UsPrivacy and Safety