TCS Daily


Thinking Philosophically About Technology

By Eugene Miller - May 28, 2003 12:00 AM

How should we think about technology, if our aim is to approach it in a philosophic manner? How are we to regard this pervasive and often intrusive force that constantly shapes and reshapes modern life?

It is best to recognize up front that such inquiry proceeds from diverse and somewhat divergent motives. Technology is a fitting subject for speculation, but also a matter of the most urgent practical concern. The challenge, in thinking philosophically about technology, is to accommodate both theoretical and practical inquiry, to give each its due while maintaining their proper order and relationship, to find the right balance between urgency and detachment.

Technology as an Object of Wonder and Speculation

Speculative philosophy arises from wonder. Aristotle observes that "it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize." Initially people wondered about immediate and obvious difficulties and then about the heavenly bodies-their movements, composition, and genesis. They also wondered about man and his works, for as Sophocles writes, "Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man."

Wonder gives rise to philosophy by occasioning puzzlement or perplexity. Thinking ourselves ignorant when faced with objects of wonder, we philosophize in order to escape from ignorance.

Of all the wonders of today's world, advancing technology is surely one of the greatest, and yet because of its constant presence in our lives and the rapidity of its advance, we are more likely to take it for granted than to view it as an object of philosophic wonder. We wonder about things that are unfamiliar, surprising, and unexpected, but technology has become our most familiar surrounding, our accustomed environment. Our initial amazement at its feats subsides quickly as the unexpected becomes routine.

A first step in philosophizing about technology is thus to regain a sense of wonder at its potency and at the astonishing results, intended and unintended, of its advance. Memory and imagination have a part to play here. Memory lets us view the present state of things against the background of our own past experience and even of humankind's recorded history. These recollections highlight the immense and rapid changes that technology has produced. By the same token, works of the imagination, including utopias and dystopias, bring out technology's wondrous power for good or ill.

Where does such speculation lead? Certainly it requires us to address the question of technology's nature or essence, the causes that make it what it is and the boundaries that define it. Yet technology cannot be understood in isolation from the other things that comprise the encompassing whole of being, or the totality of that which is.

Especially important in defining or delimiting technology is its relation to what we call nature, including above all human nature, which harbors the causes and meaning of technology. Philosophic inquiry about nature must come to terms with the discoveries of natural science and thus try to bridge a gap between them that emerged in modern times and widened over the last century. For most of intellectual history the terms "science" and "philosophy" were used interchangeably, and we tend to forget just how recent is a thematic distinction between the two. This is not to deny that they stand now in different relationships to technology, so that theoretical science propels technological advance, while philosophy seeks to view it in a comprehensive light and with regard to its human significance.

As for historical studies, some question whether they fall properly under the rubric of contemplative philosophy, while others go so far as to insist that being itself has a history in which technology plays a leading role. At least one can say that the unfolding story of human making and doing sheds valuable light on technology's character. And if philosophers should forget, others would remind them that a consideration of religion's claims is required of someone who aspires to place technology within the comprehensive whole of being.

Technology as a Practical Concern

If wonder leads us to view technology in a detached and contemplative way, other motives require a different stance. The demands of practice give rise to a kind of philosophy that regards technology in a moral light. The motive behind this practical philosophy is quite distinct from those desires or passions-our neediness, compassion, the love of power, pride of accomplishment-that spur technology's own advance and shape our reactions to it.

Practical philosophy develops from the awareness that life continually imposes on us a need to choose among alternative courses of action. Individually and collectively, we act in the conviction that our well-being depends decisively on our choices. Our intention, of course, is to choose what is good for us and avoid what is bad.

Here practical philosophy enters the scene. It holds that if we are to distinguish well between good and bad choices, ultimately we need to understand what is best for us as human beings. We must be able to measure various pathways that we might choose-a life devoted to the enjoyment of bodily pleasures, or to the accumulation of wealth, or to the striving for autonomy or authenticity, or to honor and service, or to science and its applications, or to philosophic contemplation-against a conception of the truly good, or just, or happy life. Accordingly, philosophers who deal with practice on its own terms have devoted much attention to the question of the best way of life for man and for political communities at large. Their explorations of virtue and good government are intended to provide insights that can inform prudential judgment or at least serve as its valuable ally.

Once philosophers have adopted this practical stance, they cannot avoid passing judgment on technology, since its advance bears decisively on how the good life should be understood and pursued. Technology is in some sense a means that can serve any way of life, but its advance can also predetermine the ends of moral and political action by favoring some ways of life and foreclosing others.

Voltaire is credited with the adage, "The best is the enemy of the good." It warns that the heedless and unbridled pursuit of the highest possibilities can jeopardize attainable goods, since what is simply best, especially in the political realm, is seldom within our reach. Many philosophers, recognizing this risk, have counseled moderation in practical pursuits, although this is by no means universally the case. Even if technology functions as a means only, its influence may be such as to encourage the immoderate and destructive pursuit of even the best ends. This is another reason technology falls within the purview of moral and political philosophy.

Balancing Reflection and Judgment

Given philosophy's dual character, it is important to approach the problem of technology with a view both to its theoretical and its practical dimensions.

It is reported that the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras took no interest in civic affairs and was blamed for his negligence. When someone asked him whether or not he cared about his country, he replied: "I will have great concern for my country after I have explained the heavens." This indifference to practice and its normative demands is evident also in twentieth-century positivism, which limits philosophy largely to explicating the "logic" of science and denies its capacity separately to know the world or to evaluate human actions. Even practical inquiry can transport us quickly to a speculative realm where the concerns of practice are soon forgotten.

An imbalance can arise also when detached reflection is overridden by urgent practical concerns. Much contemporary philosophical writing tends to define the problem of technology exclusively as one for practice-figuring out how to control technology so that we might enjoy its immense advantages while saving ourselves from its terrifying dangers.

Proceeding as it does from a sense of crisis and mission, such work is an understandable response to our desire to live wisely and well in a technological age. In its best formulations, it looks to the classics for insights into human nature, the shape of the good life and the good society, our human limitations, and the need for moderation. Often, however, it leans as far away from contemplation as Anaxagoras did from practice. Marx's well known "eleventh thesis" on Feuerbach stakes out a position that would be shared by many of his modern critics: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."

When all philosophy is fashioned in this practical mode, the risk of its overestimating the efficacy of political action as well as its own powers is great. The comprehensive view afforded by speculative philosophy, or else the long view afforded by history, may reveal that our capacity to control technology's advance is quite limited or-even if we can control it-that it is better left to take its own course, subject to competitive forces, internal checks, and moderate regulation. At least these possibilities deserve more serious consideration than advocates of stringent control have given them.

Philosophy itself grows out of a sense of wonder or perplexity that it never fully overcomes. Its originating questions-the "whats"-remain more evident than any solutions. Philosophers can encourage good practice by illuminating the ends of action and the broad context in which it occurs, but when it comes to choosing wisely in practical affairs, their capacities are perhaps no greater than those of thoughtful, experienced, and decent practitioners, and they may be less. Their most valuable contribution may be one of exposing ill-fashioned theories that endanger prudent judgment.

Dante reminds us that Pythagoras, when "asked whether he considered himself a wise man, refused to accept the appellation for himself and said that he was not a wise man but a lover of wisdom." To love wisdom requires not that one possess it, but only that one seek it. For this reason, writes Dante, philosophy "is not a term of arrogance but of humility." The knotty and elusive problem of technology gives us ample reason for such humility.

Notes:

Metaphysics I.2 (trans. W. D. Ross).

2 Antigone 332 (trans. Sir Richard Jebb).

3 Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, VI.6 (trans. C. I. Litzinger).

4 See, for example, Eric Cohen, "The New Politics of Technology," The New Atlantis (Spring 2003).

5 Theses on Feuerbach, XI (1845).

6 Convivio III.11 (trans. Richard Lansing).
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