The Final Narcissistic Injury

“Subdue the earth!” With this instruction, the Old Testament God sent his two-legged creatures into the world, and accordingly, people were sure for thousands of years that the earth must represent the center of the universe. After all, God hadn’t abandoned his “crown of creation”—humanity—on an insignificant planet in a dim corner of the universe. But then Nicolaus Copernicus questioned the situation of Earth in the universal order and showed the believers that their certainties were all illusory. A painful fall in the cosmic rankings but one that cleared the way for breakthrough scientific discoveries and revolutionary technologies from Einstein’s general relativity to quantum theory, from space travel to the James Webb Telescope. The “cosmological injury” began that series of painful findings that Sigmund Freud called the “narcissistic injury” of mankind.

About three hundred years after Copernicus, Charles Darwin discovered that we weren’t created in God’s image but represent the result of biological evolution. This “biological injury” dragged human beings down from the throne of God-like splendor and placed them in the “animal series.” This was the next painful blow to our collective ego—but it also made room for progress, ushering in an era of newfound knowledge and processes, such as genetic engineering and the decoding of the human genome.

Then, in the twentieth century, came the “psychological injury” of mankind. The psychoanalytic insight that we are far more strongly controlled by unconscious drives and feelings than by rational considerations, moral imperatives, and conscious acts of will severely affected people’s self-esteem for the third time, which in turn made room for enormous advances, especially in the areas of medicine and psychology. 

This series of painful realizations, which have shaken human certainties to their foundations, can be extended by a final chapter in the twenty-first century. Mankind is now facing its final narcissistic injury—the massive violation of our self-esteem by the mistaken belief that we can create a posthuman hyper-technology that can do everything better than we can: the Ubermensch. However, in the Nietzschean sense, this isn’t a human task but a form of self-deception. A “mind extension,” whose underlying “spirituality” is neither understood nor to be explained—just a disparate species that could render its founders Homo obsoletus.

The difference with the previous injury? Whereas the three injuries diagnosed by Freud promoted unintended progress, today man consciously strives for progress. We’ve come to believe that experimentation and progress are fated companions, which is why today we take human creation into our own hands. But this time, man will fail to benefit from the revelation. This narcissistic push for progress, in fact, may seal man’s fan.  

This development will likely take place in one of two ways: either through a digital superintelligence or by man merging completely with technology as everything visible and indeed everything invisible—i.e., the cerebral—connects to a digital interface. The hopeful deus ex machina—the aspired replica of “the divine” and creation itself—is now supposedly in our hands.

However, if we recall the last Kantian question, the blind spot of this narcissistic development comes to light: What is the Mensch?  Indeed, with a deductive scientific model of progress come not only questions of ethical complexity but also questions regarding the undefined goal. When have we, at last, arrived? What, in fact, is the human condition? 

We, as humanity, face the challenge of ensuring that such developments don’t lead to the loss of what we call our consciousness—our awareness of our own perceptions, sensations, and qualia. Even if we were able to tame and fully understand and ultimately merge with a digital super-technology—developing a kind of “synthetic intelligence”—we still run the risk of losing one of the main aspects of what it means to be human: namely, our ability to perceive and reflect on ourselves as thinking and feeling beings. In other words, the price of immortality, bliss, and godliness would be the loss of our “soul.”

The final narcissistic injury, however profound—however wretched—would never fully register: as we would no longer exist. This could manifest in a literal sense (as Homo sapiens is disposed of by its own brainchild) or, sadder still, when the species can no longer shape its own destiny. In the Greek myth, the vain youth Narcissus stares spellbound into the spring that shows his reflection. In the final narcissistic injury, the reflection would still be there—but no self would remain to recognize. The loss of perception’s perception. 

Our future, however, is still in our hands. We find positive progress not in a technological knowledge society but in a human society—one of understanding—in which the philosophical question of being human remains our focus, not how to leave our essence behind. and that of creation, creation, remains unanswered – the final narcissistic injury.

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