By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friendship With Phenomena : Environment, Machines, Gods And Aliens

And now, here is the next part of my marathon essay on friendship:

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THE HINDU Sunday Magazine 
Articulations - 20 Sept. 1992
Friendship with phenomena 

We had noted (Aug. 2) that the collective friendship of a group of people with an individual can either be personal or can take an abstract form, depending on the nature and dimensions of any given case.  Among the most striking examples of such abstract friendship is that which exists between a charismatic political or spiritual leader and the devoted masses.  The intensity of this collective emotional response to a powerful image is governed by a variety of factors, such as the personality and convictions of the individual and the people's faith in his or her credentials.

Normally a much larger segment of the population comes face to face with such a leader than with a performing artist or sportsperson, and therefore the precise character of such friendships is variable;  but in essence these are of the same kind.  Of course, when the image lasts beyond the leader's life, the proper analogy would be with the case of a writer whose works live on.  

Environment  and Nature 

Now let us consider the third and last category of collective friendship, viz. that of a group of people with assorted phenomena.  As we rush headlong towards the end of the 20th century, it has become fashionable to talk about the need for human beings to adopt a more friendly attitude towards the environment.  Since the relentless progress of technology has made this attitude increasingly unfriendly, one is tempted to imagine that it must have been absolutely friendly in the beginning.  

Such an assumption, however, would be quite mistaken;  for when technology did not exist, the environment would have been totally hostile towards human beings, and the reciprocal feeling could not have been friendly.  It was only when man had learnt to resist the forces of nature and protect himself against their fury   --  and also to harness them for his own benefit  --  that the question of his being friendly and protective towards the environment could have arisen. 

This question, moreover, arises only on a philosophic plane and in a very wide perspective.  Notwithstanding all the progress made by technology and civilization, the natural environment in any specific situation is still hostile to human life, which continues to need effective protection against its ferocity.  The expression 'friendliness' in this context is only a convenient name we have given to an attitude of caution which seeks to prevent the over-exploitation and eventual destruction of precious natural resources which are conducive to a good life.  The basic human response to nature has always been revenge and not amity, and it is likely to be so for ever.

Compatible machines 

The fragility of the human condition is underlined by the friendliness it needs and seeks from machines.  This elusive concept has two different aspects.  Machines, whether they are simple or sophisticated, are nothing but controlled forces of nature.  At a certain conceptual level they can be visualized as being friendly or hostile according to the constructive or destructive forms they assume.  This idea finds forceful expression in Asimov's First Law of Robotics, which lays down that the intelligent robot shall never kill a human being.  

At another level, it is in terms of their maneuverability by the users that the friendliness of machines is measured.  No matter how constructive a piece of machinery is, it fails to serve the purpose for which it has been made if its operation is a puzzle which the user cannot solve.  For this very reason, the potential power of many intricate gadgets often remain grossly under-utilized.  

Gods and aliens

Images of divinity constitute another phenomenon with which people all over the world tend to have a collective friendship.  This assumes a visible form in the acts of prayer enacted in a place of worship;  but it pervades the consciousness of all the people who share any given religious faith, cutting across regional, national and continental boundaries.  

Such a collective attitude is so formidable normally that the reciprocal friendliness of the divine figure is taken for granted and never questioned;  indeed, even serious misfortunes which trouble the believers do not usually diminish their faith.  The finest expression of collective devotion materializes in well-attended recitals of imposing sacred verses or worshipful music of a superior kind.

Mankind's perception of the universe in terms of hazards is basically the same as it has been in the case of nature's manifestation on our planet.  Therefore there can never be any question of human beings having an inherently friendly attitude towards the environment of space beyond the earth's gravitational field.  At the same time, being essentially inclined to look for peace as well as security, we do go on dreaming about our future friendship with extra-terrestrial life, even as we indulge in colorful fancies about interstellar wars.

          (to be continued)

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