Home > Uncategorized > Technology: being and belief

Technology: being and belief

from Peter Radford

E. O. Wilson was here before us when he said:

“We exist in a bizarre combination of Stone Age emotions, medieval beliefs, and god-like technology,”

The development and application of technology has, over the past three hundred years or so, lifted us out of the primordial economic problem.  I define this problem not just in terms of our ability to locate the energy needed to sustain ourselves, but also in terms of providing for ourselves in a relatively secure way.  Safety from predators was as much a problem for our ancestors as was the source of food.  The consistency of safety, food sources, and shelter was never assured.  We live in the shadow of this lack of consistency even today.  It’s almost as if we cannot quite believe our achievement.  We conquered the impress of nature and freed ourselves from the ancient fears that shaped our senses, beliefs, and instincts but have not yet shaped new ones more fitting to our prosperous circumstances.  We are lugging around a set of beliefs that are inappropriate and not at all helpful.  How can we decide what to do next if we are bedeviled by shadows of the past?  

That’s what Wilson is getting at.  And it’s what we often forget when we theorize about human behavior.  We are animals conditioned and evolved in a harsh context.

That conditioning produced a host of what we can call legacy emotions.  The creation of superstitions, and ultimately, religions are explicable in the context in which we found ourselves.  To this day those creations linger within us.  We find it easy to fall back onto frameworks that rely on the existence of something “out there” to explain why we feel insecure despite our relative security.  The contradiction of our post-industrial affluence with our pre-industrial background leaves us vulnerable to emotions that have no real basis in our currently lived world, but are simply echoes of the past.  Our achievement comes at the cost of having to manage this contradiction.  We are wired to live in a Malthusian trap, yet we have escaped.

Wilson himself reveals this dilemma in his use of the word “god” with reference to technology.  The superstitions of the past lead us to attribute natural phenomena to unnatural causes.  So something that appears unnatural, such as the immense power of a steam engine, is too easily seen through the lens of superstition.  We think of its power as “magical”, when it, manifestly, is not magical at all.

Many of us feel that we need explanations of our ability to create machines and technologies of such power that don’t refer directly back to ourselves.  We need, apparently, to make all this ability attributable to something other than our own skill, learning, or intelligence.  How can it be that we, scared, lonely, and preyed upon, can conquer nature thus?  How can we, natural born animals to our core, have created something so clearly “unnatural”?  Are we leaving the natural world behind?  Our modern being clashes headlong with our pre-modern beliefs.  That conflict is the source of the insecurity we feel needs explanation.

In this view the machines do perform magic.  They do things that are beyond our human capacity.  They exert power, channel energy, and produce prodigiously.  Whilst all these activities existed within the pre-industrial era, and had all been subject to varying degrees technological application, it was only during the recent past that they moved to the levels of capacity they now have.  The suddenness of the change, and the continuing ongoing change, has left us with little time to adjust our emotions whose roots continue to linger in the past rather than the present.  And by relying on magical references we can avoid responsibility for what we have done.  We can pretend that the consequences of our victory over the economic question are somehow not ours to resolve.  It’s magic, after all.  Not us.

This is, of course, untrue.  It is us.  Technology is us.  And as it becomes more and more insubstantial, less physical, and more dependent on information, it increasingly resembles us.  It’s as if we are facing the possibility that we are technology ourselves.  That’s disturbing.  So we use magic to intermediate between ourselves and our progeny.  It cannot be true, can it, that we have discovered the boundary between life and non-life? Or that technology will blur that boundary so substantially that we cannot tell the difference?  Is there a difference?  Is there simply a sliding continuum along which technology, not some cause “out there” determines what is alive or not?

Is this what we have done?

Have we re-written the rules of “being”?

Our destruction of the limitation imposed on us by nature has of course created a series of subsequent consequences, each of which remind us, or ought to, that we remain animals living in a harsh environment.  This adds to the confusion.  We tumble forward into this now unnatural environment confused about our new role.  Are we exploiters of nature through our technology?  Or are we curators of it?  Is it our responsibility to interfere or let nature take its course?  Are we a help or a hindrance?

The inevitability of technological advance and its promise has opened up a moral horizon foreclosed before by the economic problem.  We didn’t have to concern ourselves with deep questions of husbandry on behalf of anyone but ourselves.  We could create mythologies and superstitions that centered on ourselves.  What was beyond that self-centered boundary was hostile — it threatened us so we could treat it adversarially.  It was morally correct for us to defend ourselves and to drape ourselves in any number of anthropocentric notions.

Now it is not.

We have broken free.  This is our place now.  Not “nature’s”.  Technology has done that.  We have done that.

When Wilson writes about “god-like technology” he is telling us that we have displaced superstitious causes of our circumstances and taken on the responsibility ourselves.  Technology, our own creation, that extension of our intelligence is forcing us to confront what and who we are.  Ambivalence about technology is merely ambivalence about ourselves.  We question the power we have discovered.  That power is essential to our prosperity, but it casts a shadow over our primordially shaped conscience.

This is our place now.  There are no predators around the corner.  Safety and security are within our grasp.  Our issues are now cultural and political.  They are within our power to resolve, not nature’s.

Because of technology this is our place.

Now what?

  1. Craig
    July 25, 2021 at 6:38 pm

    Now we change the one thing that hasn’t changed since the dawn of human civilization so we can have natural abundance, productive efficiency, increasingly bestowing technical prowess and ecological sanity…..the monetary and financial paradigm.

  2. Ikonoclast
    July 25, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    That is an interesting meditation but rather off target. Let me comment on some specific points.

    (1) “We are wired to live in a Malthusian trap, yet we have escaped.”

    Actually, we have not escaped. We are still in something like the “Malthusian Trap” (MT) which itself is an inaccurate model of our predicament. But let me leave the technical inaccuracy of the model aside for a moment. The case is simply that the MT or rather Limit to Growth is an elastic cage, not an inelastic cage. We found that certain limits to growth were elastic. They could be stretched by the application of technologies; from stone axes to early farming and herding and then on to all our modern technologies. However, even the most elastic material or system stretched far enough will still break.

    The literal MT was inaccurate in positing that while population growth was potentially exponential (correct) the growth of food production was potentially only linear (incorrect). Under the application of technology, the growth of food production became exponential as did the growth of population enabled by the increasing food supply. The real problem turned out to be rather different. The exponential growth of impacts on the environment from exponential growth in production has exposed the system of systems of the biosphere, inanimate and animate, to be the limiting factor. These systems provide geoservices and bioservices and are characterized by finite stores or finite flows (depending on which of these becomes the limiting factor in each case). The benign Holocene climate (an inter-glacial period) provided weather stable enough, predictable enough, and with good proportions of sun and rain in many regions along with soils, to produce large quantities of food with the application of technology.

    As Francis Bacon so pithily and accurately pointed out, “Nature to be commanded, must be obeyed.” We do not and cannot escape the fundamental Laws of Nature. This means that to “command nature”, which really means to stretch, bend or incline nature only, we must obey the fundamental, unchanging operation of its laws. I cannot sail a sailing vessel directly into the wind. To “command the wind” to propel my boat where I want to go, I must obey the set of physical vector forces available to a vessel designed to sail. With sails, keel and rudder I mya harness the vector forces induced to act on the boat to tack against the wind.

    When mankind invents the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and the electric motor he still does not escape Nature as fundamental natural forces. He discovers more fundamental forces and how to harness them but still to “command” nature he must obey nature. In each case, the negative externalities on nature (biosphere systems) of harnessing these forces eventually becomes apparent. Jevons Paradox manifests and comes more and more into play. When technological progress “increases the efficiency with which a resource is used (reducing the amount necessary for any one use) … the rate of consumption of that resource rises due to increasing demand.” [1]

    (2) “Have we rewritten the rules of being?”

    The short answer is no. We have not rewritten one fundamental law of nature and we cannot do so. Again, as Francis Bacon points out, and it is still relevant and will be ever relevant in this world and this cosmos for contingent beings like humans;

    “Towards the effecting of works, all that man can do is put together and put asunder natural bodies. The rest is done by nature working within.”

    Look at absolutely everything we do with tools and technologies and you will see that the only thing we are doing is putting together and putting asunder natural bodies (and forces and systems). The rest is done by the fundamental forces of nature working within, or as, bodies, forces and systems. We utilize our understanding of the Laws of Thermodynamics to make more and more efficient heat engines. However, the Laws of Thermodynamics themselves put limits on the ultimate possible efficiency of heat engines. We cannot transcend those limits. We see this everywhere. We cannot transcend limits, except via a kind of partial and long-acting process which still will have its own kind of limits anyway.

    What is or what are these “partial and long-acting processes”. These processes are those of emergence and evolution. I won’t get into emergence. That is a difficult discussion. Let us get slightly into evolution which we can possibly regard as a special category of emergence and one amenable to empirical (scientific) investigation as opposed to the more metaphysical investigation required by the concept of emergence. It is certainly possible that humans have evolved with and indeed do still evolve with the development of their own technologies. The opposable thumb and increasing tool use are possibly linked as parallel and mutually reinforcing developments though there is still some controversy about that.

    But the observation, “We exist in a bizarre combination of Stone Age emotions, medieval beliefs, and god-like technology,” certainly has something to recommend it. Many (all?) of our emotions are very primitive. Many beliefs today are arguably still “medieval” in some senses but this judgement may be all of pejorative, arrogant and “time-parochial”. It is possible to be parochial about historical time as well as about geographical place. That technological development outpaces human cultural development and, even more, evolved human emotional development, is clearly true. We are relatively long-lived animals with a reproduction cycle of about 20 years. I pick this number because it makes a neat assertion of 5 generations a century.

    But modern technology only develops rapidly with respect to human generation cycles. It develops rather slowly with respect to bacteria and virus generation and evolution cycles. We discover this when we find ourselves, as now, in a technology versus evolution arms race against a dangerous and rapidly mutating virus. People assume we are winning or are going to win this “arms race”: at least enough to protect us from losing hundreds of millions of humans to COVID-19. This may prove to NOT be the case. Viewed through this lens, technology does not perhaps appear so powerful after all and a renewed respect (of concern, love and fear) towards nature might reassert itself if we ponder such verities deeply.

    The sin of pride or arrogance is real: a “sin” if viewed via certain religions and a “grievous mistake” if viewed through a scientific humanist lens. Indeed, “sin” and “grievous mistake” are partial synonyms. The homonym pun is fortuitous. The problem with instrumental science (using the term “instrumental” in the sense that it is used in the phrase “instrumental reason) is that pays little attention to the possibilities of negative externalities and unforeseen consequences. It barges forward rashly, aggressively, greedily, blindly with regard only for the needs and greeds of those using and developing such technologies. Nature and other marginalized humans are brushed aside, flung into the mire, shrouded in pollutants and so on.

    Given the grave dangers we now face, nothing less than collapse of civilization and possibly the extinction of humans, from crises like climate change, the sixth mass extinction, the rise of pandemic zoonotic diseases from our encroachment on the wilds and so on, I think we should be much more careful about declaring and wielding technology as a nature-conquering force. If we continue to do that nature will completely conquer us and send us extinct. To “command” nature to an extent suited to our own purblind and fallible human nature and within the limits of technology (it too will prove to have limits) we must obey nature.

    There are no predators around the corner? What is COVID-19? It has already killed over four million humans and counting. That worldometer count is, in many quarters where statistical work with excess deaths is done, considered to be an under-count by at least a factor of 4: meaning a count of 16 million is much more likely to be near the mark. The SARSCoV2 virus is an efficient “predator” or at least killer of humans. Scientists have estimated that, as at about the end of 2020, the total amount of SARSCoV2 virus in humans at any one time then (it lives almost exclusively in humans apart from fleeting transmission journeys) was of the order of 0.1 kgs to 10 kgs. Let us take the 1 kg estimate. That mass of virus can kill many millions, put many more millions at risk, outstrip science by rapid evolution and confound the medical and political economic systems of global humanity. How powerful is nature! How puny are humans and their science! And this ignores the consistent great predator of humans throughout all civilizational history: other humans! Homo homini lupus est. Man is a wolf to man. We have a lot of developing to do and it is not technological, it is moral.

    Notes.

    1. Wikipedia.

  3. Edward Ross
    July 27, 2021 at 1:22 am

    Ikonoclast i find your comment on the power of nature makes a lot of sense to me. To some extent from my rural background and farming particularly “How powerful is nature, We have a lot of developing to do and it is not technological, it is moral.” My awe and respect for nature is what leads me to think, nature is not a random event, there has to be some sort of supreme entity or god behind it. This is why i became a convert to the christian catholic religion with its emphasis on caring for one and other. Ted

    • July 27, 2021 at 3:01 pm

      Welcome home, Ted. May I suggest your type of thinking is not wishful thinking, it is judgement. On the evidence the “God the loving Father of Prodigal Sons” hypothesis is much more realistic than the ungrateful “eat, drink and be merry” of the thoughtless Prodigal Sons.

  4. July 27, 2021 at 5:18 pm

    Ike, like Ted, I find your attempts to get Peter Radford back on course make a lot of sense.
    The only thing I would point out is that what has been translated as “sin” in English and “trespasses” in the “Our Father” of the Anglican bible, appears in Anglican bishop Peter Selby’s “Grace and Mortgage” to be a euphemism for “debt” in the modern sense: a debt we should be very grateful for having had paid off, and for being taught how to live without it.

    Peter went off course where he says “The creation of superstitions, and ultimately, religions are explicable in the context in which we found ourselves”. Superstition may be “an ignorant and irrational belief in supernatural agency”, but he forgets that we all start life as ignorant and irrational children, and takes literally what are intended as analogies being used to help children understand the big issue: that the universe they see was not always like that: indeed that one needs to take a philosophical position on whether it had always existed, and be grateful while it still does. Of course if you believe the superstitions of its enemies, assuming you would be wasting your time trying to understand religious practice and projecting your own ignorant and irrational belief on it, little wonder if it looks to you like unintelligible gibberish.

    • Ikonoclast
      July 28, 2021 at 11:58 am

      Mainstream Christian doctrine does not look like unintelligible gibberish to me. I understand quite a bit about the doctrines of the following churches / theologies;

      (1) Church of England (infant-baptized and Sunday-schooled into this church);
      (2) Lutheran Church (catechized and adult baptized into this church);
      (3) Roman Catholic Church (general knowledge);
      (4) Calvinism (Many amicable debates with a qualified Calvinist Theologian, a friend).

      My favorite concepts or themes from the Bible:

      1. The dangers of knowledge and hubris from knowledge. Acquisition of knowledge generates a loss of innocence. Acquisition of knowledge generates an increase in sorrow. “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” That could be taken two ways. Just knowing things about the wicked and dangerous world could increase sorrow. Also, using increased knowledge instrumentally can lead to unforeseen consequences.

      2. All is vanity and the ephemeral nature of all earthly things. The Book of Ecclesiastes is essentially a philosophical poen and as such is my favorite philosophical poem. Its conventioanlly pious end can be interpreted in different ways.

      3. Judgement versus Grace and forgiveness plus the (not only) Lutheran view emphasizing being saved by Grace not works.

      At the same time, I clearly have problems with Christian theology although I agree about the dangers of hubris, the increase in sorrow from knowledge and the ephemeral and vain nature of earthly life. My problems include:

      (1) The doctrine of revelation. Revelation is attested to by Revelation: a circular proof.

      (2) The setting of impossible standards and playing on excess guilt: this being used by the priests for their own power and gain. Yet, the use of the forgiveness doctrine to permit priests to escape punishment.

      (3) The doctrine of the sacrifice of Christ. This sacrifice is either symbolic or legalistic depending on how one looks at it. What it is NOT is effective in any way we can discern in alleviating sufferings in this world. As I looked at it about age ten: “This guy turns up. Takes on the guilt for all our sins. Gets himself killed. Comes back for a few days and then disappears again leaving us in the same mess we were in before. He has infinite power as part of God. Why didn’t he hang around and help us?”

      At the same time, maybe I better read Revelations again since we are clearly in end times. This world is done.

      https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-07-28/fire-thunderstorms-may-cause-nuclear-winter-scientists-say/100323566

      Click to access yale-publication.pdf

      • July 28, 2021 at 4:09 pm

        Apologies if my last sentence came over more personally than intended: my “you” is a habitual way of speaking and might have been better put as “one”. However, your 1 and 2 come from the Calvinistic Old Testament, not the Good News. I too love Ecclesiastes, but had you noticed it is paradoxical? We read it at our Silver Wedding, for the Vanity of Vanities was not so vain that it didn’t survive. The Judgement at 3. is of the failure of the Old Testament and Calvinistic Capitalism:full not of love but brothers killing brothers and kings killing prophets.

        Anyway, let me try and address your problems.

        At (1) I don’t see Revelation justifying Revelation, I see Actions speaking louder than Words: Jesus being believed because of the miracles he could perform. As I said to Ted, it is a matter of judgement whether one believes the testimony of those who saw what at least looked like miracles, or those who have pre-judged miracles as impossible.

        At (2), the problem is that priests are just as human as the rest of us, so what you say is doubtless true of some of them.
        (It turns out that the Pope at the time of the Reformation was a Borgia). Growing up requires us to attempt what we previously found impossible; but clearly the Christian forgiveness doctrine isn’t about blaming us for our failures: it is about plucking up the courage to try again.

        At (3), symbolic or legalistic; or in context, not so much ‘real’ as ‘true’: the Word trying to convey to us just how much His/Our Father loves us. I don’t know whether this is insight or heresy, but if the price of God’s having children to love Him was to love the thought of them enough to blow Himself up (the Big Bang), then in a way Christ’s death and Resurrection is showing us that love by re-enacting God’s self-sacrifice and the reality that we call the Conservation of Energy.

  5. Ken Zimmerman
    July 29, 2021 at 11:08 am

    Bruno Latour defines Science (in the singular) as the politicization of the sciences through epistemology in order to render ordinary political life impotent through the threat of an incontestable nature. If the single word “Science” already always combines the imbroglio of politics, nature, and knowledge that we must learn to disentangle, it is clear that we cannot set out on our journey without removing the threat that Science has always brought to bear as much on the exercise of politics as on the practices of scientific researchers. In the West we have become heirs to an allegory that defines the relations between Science and society: the allegory of the Cave, recounted by Plato in the Republic. This allegory provides two virtues for the philosopher/later scientist. First, to free themselves of the tyranny of the social dimension, public life, politics, subjective feelings, popular agitation—in short, from the dark Cave—if they want to acquire truth. There exists no possible continuity between the world of human beings and access to truths “not made by human hands.” But there is a second virtue necessary for Science. From the prison of the social world, the scientist can go back into the Cave so as to bring order to it with incontestable findings that will silence the endless chatter of the ignorant mob. Once again, there is no continuity between the henceforth irrefutable objective law and the human—all too human—verbosity of the prisoners shackled in the shadows, who never know how to bring their interminable disputes to an end.

    The Philosopher-Scientist, at once Lawgiver and Savior is the only possible hero. Although the world of truth differs absolutely, not relatively, from the social world, the Scientist can go back and forth from one world to the other no matter what: the passageway closed to all others is open to him alone. In the scientists and through them alone, the tyranny of the social world is miraculously interrupted when he leaves, so that he will be able to contemplate the objective world at last; and it is likewise interrupted when he returns, so that like a latter-day Moses he will be able to substitute the legislation of scientific laws, which are not open to question, for the tyranny of ignorance. Without this double interruption there can be no Science, no epistemology, no paralyzed politics, no Western conception of public life.

    This allegory still rules us today. And that must change for our species to survive. However vast the laboratories may be, however attached researchers may be to industrialists, however many technicians they may have to employ, however active the instruments for transforming data, however constructive the theories, none of this matters; you will be told straight out that Science can survive only as long as it distinguishes absolutely and not relatively between things “as they are” and the “representation that human beings make of them.” Without this division between “ontological questions” and “epistemological questions,” all moral and social life would be threatened. Why? Because, without it, there would be no more reservoir of incontrovertible certainties that could be brought in to put an end to the incessant chatter of obscurantism and ignorance. There would no longer be a sure way to distinguish what is true from what is false. One could no longer break free of social determiners to understand what things themselves are, and, for want of that essential comprehension, one could no longer cherish the hope of pacifying public life, which is always threatened by civil war. Nature and human beliefs about nature would be mixed up in frightful chaos. Public life, having imploded, would lack the transcendence without which no interminable dispute could end.

    If you point out politely that the very ease with which scientists pass from the social world to the world of external realities, the facility they demonstrate through this business of importing and exporting scientific laws, the fluency of the discourse in which they convert human and objective elements, prove clearly enough that there is no rupture between the two worlds and that they are dealing rather with a seamless cloth, you will be accused of relativism; you will be told that you are trying to give Science a “social explanation”; your unfortunate tendencies toward immoralism will be denounced; you may be asked publicly if you believe in the reality of the external world or not, or whether you are ready to jump out a fifteenth-story window because you think that the laws of gravity, too, are “socially constructed”

    We have to be able to deflect such sophistry on the part of philosophers of the sciences; it has been used for twenty-five centuries to silence politics as soon as the question of nature comes up. Let us face the facts at the outset: there is no way out of this trap. And yet, at first glance, nothing ought to be more innocent than epistemology, knowledge about knowledge, meticulous descriptions of scientific practices in all their complexity. Let us not confuse this highly respectable form of epistemology with an entirely different activity that I shall call (political) epistemology, using parentheses because this discipline claims to be limited to Science, whereas its aim is really just to humiliate politics. The goal of this form of epistemology is by no means to describe the sciences, contrary to what its etymology might suggest, but to short-circuit any and all questioning as to the nature of the complex bonds between the sciences and societies, through the invocation of Science as the only salvation from the prison of the social world. The double rupture of the Cave is not based on any empirical investigation or observed phenomena; it is even contrary to common sense, to the daily practice of all scientists; and if it ever did exist, twenty-five centuries of sciences, laboratories, and scholarly institutions have long since done away with it. But it cannot be helped: the epistemology police will always cancel out that ordinary knowledge by creating the double rupture between elements that everything connects, and by depicting those who cast doubt on the double rupture as relativists, sophists, and immoralists who want to ruin any chance we may have to accept external reality and thus to reform society on the rebound.

    For the idea of a double rupture to have resisted all contradictory evidence over the centuries, there must be a powerful reason buttressing its necessity. This reason can only be political—or religious.

  6. Gerald Holtham
    July 30, 2021 at 11:09 pm

    “Since the analogies are rot
    Our senses based belief upon,
    We have no means of learning what
    Is really going on,
    And must put up with having learned
    All proofs or disproofs that we tender
    Of His existence are returned
    Unopened to the sender.”

    W.H.Auden.

    “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
    The proper study of mankind is man.”

    Alexander Pope

    • July 31, 2021 at 8:51 am

      No! We (at least as adults) must take responsibility for deciding which of the analogies are worth believing pragmatically and acting on “as if” they were NOT rot. I personally would rather be a loving father than a thief (particularly of other people’s innocence).

      • July 31, 2021 at 9:06 am

        PS. Gerald, have you yourself studied mankind (as I have) from the point of view of discovering how it physically happens that so many people fail to grow up? You might compare Harris’s Freudian “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” with Briggs-Myers’ Jungian “Gifts Differing” to see what observations the physiology has to explain. (Being a child IS okay).

  7. Craig
    August 2, 2021 at 4:40 pm

    Both science and religionists have it wrong…because they don’t mentally integrate, experience and so understand that nature is both particular and ecstatic.

    Mere, orthodox, obsessive and somnambulistic Dualism is the entire problem that humanity has excruciatingly slowly dealt with since its first paradigm change from unconsciousness to self awareness occurred.

    • Craig
      August 2, 2021 at 4:48 pm

      Grace is the full, unitary, simultaneous, conscious and so exstatic experience of the cosmos….of which you are an integral part.

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