Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)

Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)

Role of Technology in Man's
Relationship with Nature

in The Physicist's Conception of Nature (1958)

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Role of Technology in Man's Relationship with Nature

In all this, technology intervenes radically in the relationship of nature to man, radically changing his environment and thus bringing him face to face with the scientific aspect of the world. The claim of science, that it can reach into the whole universe by means of a method which, at a chosen moment, will isolate and illuminate details and thus advance from one relation to the next, is mirrored in technology, which progresses step by step to ever-new realms, changes our surroundings before our very eyes and thus stamps them with our image... Here technology no longer appears as the result of a conscious human effort to extend man's material powers, but rather as a large-scale biological process in which man's organic functions are increasingly transferred to his environment. In other words, we have here a biological process which, as such, is removed from man's control; for while man can do what he wishes, he cannot will what he wishes.

Technology and Changes in our Way of Life

In this connection it has often been said that the far-reaching changes in our environment and in our way of life wrought by this technical age have also changed dangerously our ways of thinking, and that here lie the roots of the crises which have shaken our times and which, for instance, are also expressed in modern art. True, this objection is much older than modern technology and science, the use of implements going back to man's earliest beginnings. Thus, 2500 years ago, the Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu spoke of the danger of the machine (Gardener Watering a Ditch).

Clearly this ancient tale contains a great deal of wisdom, for 'uncertainty' in the 'strivings of the soul' is perhaps one of the aptest descriptions of man's condition in our modern crisis; technology, the machine, has spread through the world to a degree that our Chinese sage could not even have suspected. But two thousand years have gone by and still man is creating the most beautiful works of art in the world, and that simplicity of heart of which the sage spoke has never been lost entirely... After all, the rise of the human race is the result of the development of tools. Thus it cannot be technoloy itself that is the reason why our age has lost consciousness of so many values. We shall probably come closer to the truth if we blame the suddenness, and— compared with previous changes— the uncommonly fast development of technology in the last fifty years, for many of the difficulties. In contra-distinction to previous centuries this rapid change simply did not leave humanity time to get used to new conditions of life. This, however, fails to explain properly the entirely unprecedented nature of man's predicament.

Consciousness of the Danger of Our Situation

In what appears to its unlimited development of material powers, humanity finds itself in the position of a captain whose ship has been built so strongly of steel and iron that the magnetic needle of its compass no longer responds to anything but the iron structures of the ship; it no longer points north. The ship can no longer be steered to reach any goal, but will go round in circles, a victim of wind and currents. However, the danger persists only so long as the captain has not grasped that the compass is not responding to the magnetic forces of the earth. The moment he realizes that the danger is as good as half-removed; the captain who does not wish to sail in circles but wishes to reach a known or even unknown goal will find ways and means of determining the direction of his ship. He may use a modern compass which is not affected by the iron of the ship, or, as in the olden times, he may use the stars as his guides. Of course, he cannot order the stars to be visible at all times, and perhaps it is true that in our age only a few of them seem to be shining at all, but this one thing is clear: the very realization that faith in progress must have a limitation involves the wish to cease going in circles and to reach a goal instead.

As we become clearer about this limitation, the limitation itself may be considered to be the first foothold from which we may re-orientate ourselves. Perhaps this analogy will help us in gaining a new hope that although these limitations affect us in some ways, they do not limit life itself. The space in which man develops as a spiritual being has more dimensions than the single one which it has occupied during the last centuries. This would imply that over longer periods of time, a conscious acceptance of this limitation might well lead to some equilibrium, where man's knowledge and creative forces will once again find themselves ranged spontaneously about their common centre.

Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976),
The Physicist's Conception of Nature (1958)
Hutchinson & Co., London, 1958, pp. 19-31
translated by Arnold J. Pomerans
Das Naturbild der Heutigen Physik
Rowohlt, Hamburg, 1955

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