Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Rightful Place of Technology

One of the more puzzling - and more frustrating - issues we of the Duhem Society must face is the proper place of technology and science in the human world. Now as charter members you already know that one of our founding principles is the "rebuilding of the bridge between science and human nature" (see the Chesterton quote at the very bottom of our blogg). This bridge-building of course is dangerous and requires our honest diligence and a kind of sacrificial dedication... it is engineering in its supreme form, and we do what we can, in our Society, and elsewhere in our personal and professional lives, to further this aim. But there are others - the Luddite (technology condemners, haters, or fearers) on one side, and the Technolatrist (those who glorify, worship, or deify technology) on the other side. These do not understand the right place for technology, just as there are philosophers who seem to ignore reality. Until it's a matter of payday, or a question about their latest journal article!

Chesterton has an elegant epigram for the right view, since he was far too intelligent to condemn or glorify technology:
I have often thanked God for the telephone...
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:112]
Jaki provides a somewhat more intricate examination, from which I shall now provide an excerpt for your consideration.

--Dr. Thursday

PS You may be surprised to note SLJ's reference to the famous Moby-Dick; it's almost as if we encountered a differential equation in a Chesterton essay!

Technology as a nemesis is a very real thing and the reason for this is a counterpart to the idolization of technology and therefore theological in nature. Of course, theological symptoms are given nowadays non-theological labels, with no consideration for the fact that pharmacies may not be the only place where labels can be disastrously misplaced. The reason in question found its best description in Melville's Moby Dick, in his portrayal of Captain Ahab's being wrapped up more and more irresistibly in a self-destructive pursuit. Irresistibly yet not unknowingly. The high point comes much earlier, in that meditation where Captain Ahab admits: "All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad." A masterful observation in a masterpiece which starts with a sermon, a paraphrase of the story of Jonah who does the wrong thing though fully aware of the right thing he was supposed to do.
Quite a few who write about science and technology as something which is getting out of hand, slip, time and again, into a style which on the one hand evokes theology, but on the other falls far short of Melville's outspokenness. Take, for instance, the graphic description of science by a physicist, according to whom science is a train racing down the track "on which there are an unknown number of switches leading to unknown destinations. No single scientist is in the cab and there may be demons at the switch. Most of society is in the caboose looking backward." Whatever the possible misplacement of scientists and society, demons have never been more misplaced. Are they not just so many red herrings? Would it not have been far more honest to admit that in all too many occasions man deliberately throws the switch which shifts the train of science to tracks where nemesis looms large? It would have been far more honest to recall not demons but those two men who, according to St. Paul, struggle within each of us: one urging us to do good, the other luring us to do evil.
Once this theological label is declined, the result is not merely the placing of a wrong label (an always potentially disastrous procedure), but the impossibility of recognizing the very real situation. For if man is by definition an aggressive animal, how can one make him accountable for his wrongdoing, indeed how can one argue that there is wrongdoing at all? Is it not the worst nemesis to be caught in a course of increasingly sophisticated murders and to write off the whole matter under the disguise of that sophisticated blindfold which is genetic determinism? Are we not in that case condemned to be conscious cogwheels in that inexorable machine, a true nemesis, which invariably turns the possible into an imperative?
[SLJ "The Three Faces of Technology: Idol, Nemesis, Marvel" in The Only Chaos and Other Essays]

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