Havel’s ‘Respect for Mystery’ versus the Techno-Gnostics

Havel’s ‘Respect for Mystery’ versus the Techno-Gnostics” by Joseph P. Duggan is a recent post over at The American Spectator which discusses a modern ‘techno-gnosticism’ while imagining a scene at the pearly gates made possible by the recent synchronous deaths of Václav Havel, Christopher Hitchens and Kim Jong-Il. This article is ostensibly about one of the people I’ve personally considered one of the great modern minds, and a definite influence for me, but I think it also has value for those interested in “scientific illuminism” as a potential warning to avoid a scientific attitude, or scientism, or techno-gnosticism, or, if you allow, a scientific management of humanity; that devolves into merely another superstition or fails to be life affirming or supportive of the overall human experience, or ignores illuminism.

“Most recently, this conscientious thinker was preoccupied with a disorder of the mind and soul as old as Descartes, vexing contemporary civilization no less today than it did during the Communist era. This is a mindset I call ‘techno-gnosticism,’ more or less the same ideology of scientism that Walker Percy and Neil Postman eloquently criticized. Among the consequences of this mindset are the global financial crisis and the collapse of post-Communist hopes for a ‘Europe whole and free’ into the reality of a Europe fractured and bankrupt.

One of Havel’s final testaments was his lecture at the Prague Forum in October 2010. He lamented ‘the swollen self-consciousness of this civilization, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don’t yet know we’ll soon find out, because we know how to go about it. We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful.’

With an intimation of immortality, Havel observed: ‘With the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness, there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions.’

Who can say God lacks a sense of humor? Not the honest searcher Havel, sometimes agnostic but always a friend to religious believers. He finds himself in the queue in the celestial waiting room on the same day as atheist gnostic know-it-all Kim Jong-Il. If St. Peter likes a good laugh, he will grant Christopher Hitchens credentials to report on the scene for media fleeter than Fleet Street’s.” [via]

“Deep in reflection in the city that gave us Kafka and the Golem, Havel said at the 2010 Prague Forum: ‘I regard the recent crisis as a very small and very inconspicuous call to humility. A small and inconspicuous challenge for us not to take everything automatically for granted. Strange things are happening and will happen. Not to bring oneself to admit it is the path to hell. Strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out of the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well.'” [via]

“Two decades ago, Neil Postman saw things going not well at all. In his book Technopoly he described the metastasis of technology’s relationship to man from usefulness to power (technocracy), thence to a sort of totalitarian monopoly of the mind (technopoly).

Postman dissected scientism and technopoly into three ideological components. First is the idea that “the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior.’ Second is that ‘social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis.’ The final pillar of technopoly is that ‘faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality.'” [via]