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Manchester book reviews

Technology and the Philosophy of Religion

Technology and the Philosophy of Religion

by David Lewin (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011)

Reviewed by Charles Brickdale January 2012

What matters is what works’  Tony Blair.


Blair’s aphorism was meant to justify such departures from socialist doctrine as the Private Finance Initiative and, perhaps, taking money from the likes of Bernie Ecclestone.


What it also does is encapsulate a mode of thinking about and experiencing the world which David Lewin describes in his thought-provoking book as ‘technological nihilism’, an orientation based upon a ‘false anthropology which arises out of the failure to see things primarily as given.’ In other words, Lewin’s concern is with the implications of living in a culture which dwells entirely in the kingdom of means and has lost sight of the kingdom of ends.


Lewin’s professional academic concern is to move philosophy of technology on from what he sees as the technological modes of thinking which are the dominant modes of analysis in the field at the moment to a point at which it places technology in a much larger context, an ultimate context, in fact, of concern with the meaning of human activity and the nature of our being. His broader concern is with the role that this relatively obscure branch of philosophy can play in informing the thinking we all do about how we live and, specifically, the implications for our common understanding of how and why we live as we do and, within that, of how we conceive the nature and role of technology.


This is not the philosophy of gadgets. Lewin’s whole point, drawing heavily from Heidegger, especially his paper ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, is to show that the ‘essence’ of technology lies less in things, how they work and what we use them for and more in the extent to which our activity is grounded in ultimate value or concern, if at all. So, the proper focus of the philosophy of technology is us.


What is the ‘false anthropology’ which Lewin sees as characteristic of modernity? It is the view of humanity which sees us as radically free agents in a universe which has no intrinsic, given meaning and which we are, therefore, at liberty to shape according to our wishes. Nihilism is the consequence along with the exclusive focus on means referred to above.


Curiously, he makes no explicit mention of that other anthropology of modern times: the view, advanced by some New Atheists, such as Daniel Dennett, and by the philosopher John Gray in ‘Straw Dogs’, that free will and the subjective self are, crudely, illusions. What we think of as the thinking, reflecting and deciding mind is, in fact, little more than a biological machine. Given the importance of the issues this analysis raises and its implicit reduction of human beings to the status of living technology it might seem that Lewin would want to challenge it as well as the nihilist existentialist attitude.


Martin Heidegger

However, one could argue that there is an implicit repudiation of neuronal determinism in the overall thesis he offers, not least his assault on the ‘what matters is what works’ view of life. Still, it is a puzzling omission.


Lewin’s main philosophical source is Heidegger; he also draws heavily on the theologian Paul Tillich. Together, these two giants of 20th Century thought provide Lewin with the intellectual underpinning, in particular, the ontological foundations, needed to support his main argument. Several other philosophers come in for critical interrogation of their views: best known to most readers of this site, I imagine, is Herbert Marcuse.


Marcuse’s concern is to end the divorce between the realm of freedom and the realm of necessity and thereby to abolish alienation in all its forms. His premise is that the huge advances in productive capacity made possible by the scientific and technological revolutions cannot, under capitalism, lead to the liberation of human creative potential envisaged by Marx until the new revolutionary forces identified by the New Left have led the charge to the communist paradise. As an aside, it’s a curious feature of one of the best known literary communist utopias – the one imagined by William Morris in ‘News from Nowhere’ – that it appears to possess virtually nothing in the way of industrial technology. Was it beyond even Morris’ imaginative powers to envisage how then-modern technology could be transformed into a creative force?


Herbert Marcuse

Marcuse’s reframing of Marxist revolutionary theory in pursuit of these objectives is, in the end, unsatisfactory, according to Lewin, because it lacks a secure ontological foundation. It leads inexorably, therefore, to the kind of subjectivist, instrumental nihilism that is already characteristic of modernity. Marcuse shares his ontological rootlessness with, according to Lewin, many of the dominant analyses of humanity’s relation to technology and, indeed, of human social life in general.


The way out of this bind is suggested by Heidegger’s notion that human action in the world leads to an ‘unconcealing’ of what otherwise remains hidden. The problem is that what the philosophical and ideological systems characteristic of modernity reveal to us is a world perceived to be a ‘standing reserve’ of energy, power, solutions to problems and measurable phenomena. The priority we give to this manner of, to use Heidegger’s term, ‘enframing’ the world conceals more and deeper primal truths, cutting us off from the indeterminate depths of being.


This leaves us both without a clear frame of reasoning within which to set our immediate passions and desires and limited in our conception of how we might live by the tools (concepts and modes of organisation as well as gadgets) immediately available to us. Will is unguided and directionless: consequently, the nihilism of pointless instrumentality rules supreme. Thus is outlined, we might suggest, a possible explanation for the soulless, aimless pragmatism of much of contemporary life and for the rise to power of Anthony Charles Linton Blair.


Paul Tillich (right, glasses) at conference with Einstein

According to Tillich, one issue is the narrow way in which reasoning is defined. Reason, for him, is Logos, ‘the divine power of reason’ which is discoverable as the essence of all things by those who channel their will and passions towards its unconcealing.


One of the ways in which Lewin links the ontologies of Tillich and Heidegger is through the concept of poiesis. Art (and craft, by implication?) is one of the paradigm human activities here. Poiesis, according to Heidegger, is the process whereby contemplation leads the artist to an understanding of what is being disclosed to him or her and thereby, to acts of creation as much receptive as projective, as much passive as active.


Contemplation and attentiveness to what is being shown create a ‘clearing’ in which being can come into itself. As much as anything, this is key to ‘the origin of the work of art’ (the title of another of Heidegger’s essays). It is also a signpost to ways in which our engagement with technology might be more open to the inspiration that comes from transcendence and less at the mercy of capricious subjective will and the narrow ‘pragmatism’ of contemporary culture.


To what, if anything, does this lead us? Two issues dominate Lewin’s reflections on what we might do: the availability of the products of technology versus quality and beauty and the development of a social ontology.


There are several moments at which, in his discussion of the sheer vast availability of stuff made possible by modern technology, Lewin appears tempted to trundle off down the dead-end street of antitechnological, antediluvian greenery. By and large, and putting one or two passing references to the theory of anthropogenic global warming to one side, it’s a temptation that, mercifully, he avoids.


He does suggest that there are grounds for questioning the exclusive focus on cost/benefit analysis in discussions about, for example, GM crops. Such a focus does not, he argues, provide any grounds for meaningful interrogation of the concern that GM is ‘unnatural’. This issue clearly stems in part from Heidegger’s view that we have reduced the world to a collection of objects to be measured and quantified and assessed for their usefulness and that this is, in large part, a cause of the loss of meaning in modern life.


Happily, Lewin is ‘not yet [emphasis added] suggesting that GM is unnatural, or that we should abandon such research’. Let’s hope he never does, given that human beings have been altering the heredity of plants and animals more or less since we first learnt to plant and grow crops and to herd animals and that such alterations have been the foundation of our survival and flourishing as a species. GM, one could argue, is an extension – a momentous one, true – of the same principle. Such activity seems to come ‘naturally’ to us; the reluctance to sit back and watch while other human beings die through entirely preventable shortages of food certainly does.


Lewin is surely right, however, to suggest that what might crudely be called the quality of life should be an issue as much as abundance of production: rightly, he is not concerned with the impoverished meaning with which the phrase ‘quality of life’ is often used. Production should be about more than just quantity: he might have drawn here on Jewish ethics which both accommodate the need for effective means of meeting human needs and the imperative to make meeting those needs as pleasurable as possible. Indeed, Marcuse makes the point that aesthetic and imaginative activity and contemplation constitute as much of a biological need for us as food. Certainly, without it and deep immersion in the accompanying moral, philosophical and cultural issues, life lacks depth and becomes little more than a daily, amoral grind. Marcuse’s phrase, ‘one-dimensional man’, is apt.


Lewin’s search for means of reconnecting human beings with the transcendent inevitably leads him to ask if a deep ontology can be shared; is a social ontology conceivable?


Lewin looks to the emergence of a shared consciousness of what is fundamentally, transcendentally important in life: ‘not simply the aggregation of individuals, but a whole new body in which we all participate – a social body.’ Christians might pick up an allusion to St. Paul’s vision of the Church as the Body of Christ; on the other hand, the fact that Heidegger never repudiated his membership of the Nazi Party might remind us of the possibility that visions of the social body thinking and feeling as one, fuelled by mystical dreams, can have some very ugly outcomes too. It’s an aspect of Heidegger’s life and philosophy that seems to me unavoidable, especially in a discussion of his thinking about technology, for which, after all, the Nazis had their own distinctive uses. What, one wonders, does the technology of Auschwitz ‘disclose’?


In fact, Lewin – and, to be fair, Heidegger himself in the ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ – hint strongly that there needs to be co-existence of technological and ontological modes of thinking and being: perhaps Dr. Lewin will develop these hints further in a subsequent book.


A useful starting point might be the creation of the King James Bible. Whatever one’s beliefs it is one of the great achievements of the English-speaking world. Its astonishing poetry and magisterial prose were the work of not one but several committees; its success lay in the fact that it solved a problem (how to communicate in language all could understand) and in the sense of awe and mystery opened up by its prose. In Heideggerian terms, the Authorised Version could be seen as a successful blend of technological, ontological and mystical modes of thought and feeling.


Paul Tillich’s reflections on the nature of the concepts we use to think about and try to understand being suggest another line of enquiry. In 'The Courage to Be’  he says:

They must be understood not literally but analogously… Their choice is a matter of experience and thought, and subject to criteria which determine the adequacy or inadequacy of each of them.
(Fount Paperbacks, 1972, page 35)


As well as suggesting the importance of reason in formulating a coherent ontology and the need for reflection and critical thought (Tillich knew all about both, having been forced into exile for his anti-Nazi activities) this approach contains within it the seeds of an understanding of ontology which uses metaphor and imagery to express truths about the human condition which need not, thereby, be confined exclusively to formulations derived from theistic orthodoxy. Tillich, himself a theologian in the Christian tradition if not especially orthodox, suggests that ‘the doctrinal symbols of Christianity … are no longer understood in their original power of expressing the human situation and of answering existential human questions.’ (‘The Courage to Be’, p. 57).


Tillich goes on, in terms that bring him close to the language and imagery of transcendence and non-religious ontology employed by atheist thinkers such as Raymond Tallis and Andre Comte-Sponville and by cultural, non-creedal Christians such as Roger Scruton: ‘Ontic and spiritual self-affirmation must be distinguished but they cannot be separated. Man’s being includes his relation to meanings. He is human only by understanding and shaping reality, both his world and himself, according to meanings and values.’


The implication is clear: a way of life that reveals existence in one aspect only, namely, its measurability and utility, is dehumanising, a denial of our deepest needs and potential and of the truth about what it is to be human in the world. Heidegger, for all his considerable flaws, was right about that and about the centrality of technology to an understanding of what it is about modern life that limits and blocks our humanity.


Dr. Lewin has provided a generally lucid account and analysis of philosophical approaches to technology that does not shrink from addressing the complexities of Heidegger’s philosophy (made more complex by Heidegger’s dense prose and frequent coining of neologisms). The study’s great service is to focus thought on the deep causes of the intellectual, moral and spiritual flatness of much contemporary life, principally, the exclusive focus on technological, instrumental, utilitarian modes of thought and the extent to which this dehumanising tendency can be found in all branches of thought, culture and action.


Editor's note: As there seems to be a popular anxiety about the role of technology in transforming society for the better, the Manchester Salon is hosting a discussion on Monday 20 February entitled Technology: why the anxiety?

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