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Technology

Mr. Kalb has suggested, that in the liberal understanding of the world, “rationality” determines the way in which one must think about things in a liberal society. “Rationality” therefore becomes a criterion for both the mode of discourse and the content of discourse within a liberal society.

No objective criteria exist to determine what “rationality” is in any ahistorical sense. So, for our purposes, we can specify that liberalism provides a definitive understanding of “rationality,” that is, liberalism prescribes the “correct way to think about things” in our world before a discussion even begins.

Thus, the liberal notion of “rationality” determines, in advance: 1. what may be discussed, that is, literally what exists; and, 2. how the “what exists” may be thought about.

Therefore, the liberal notion of rationality determines what exists in the world and how we are to think about what exists in the world.

In this connection, I ran across this discussion of technology by the philosopher Iain Thompson, in which he addresses Heidegger’s conception of technology as ontological; that is, in this formulation, technology is not merely instrumental, it actually determines what exists and how we are to think about what exists. It establishes a field of intelligibility within which all moderns live and think.

“What exactly is Heideggers understanding of the essence of technology? Heidegger most famous claim, that the essence of technology is nothing technological, may not initially seem to be of much help. But as I explained in our earlier debate, essence is an important term of art for Heidegger, a term which he painstakingly explains in his famous 1955 essay on The Question Concerning Technology. Drawing on these careful remarks, I argued that:

Heideggers paradoxical-sounding claim that the essence of technology is nothing technological does not mean [as Feenberg contends] that technology leaves no room for reflexivity (p. 207). Heidegger is really expressing the paradox of the measure; height is not high, treeness is not itself a tree, and the essence of technology is nothing technological. To understand the essence of technology, Heidegger says, we cannot think of essence the way we have been doing since Plato (as what permanently endures), for that makes it seem as if by the (essence of) technology we mean some mythological abstraction. We need, rather, to think of essence as a verb, as the way in which things essence or remain in play. The essence of technology thus means the way in which intelligibility happens for us these days, that is, as what Heidegger calls enframing (the historical mode of revealing in which things show up only as resources to be optimized).

In short, the referent of the phrase the essence of technology is our current constellation of intelligibility, which Heidegger calls enframing (das Gestell).

According to Heidegger, enframing is grounded in our metaphysical understanding of what-is, an ontotheology transmitted to us by Nietzsche. In Heideggers history of Being, the great metaphysicians articulate and disseminate an understanding of what beings are, and in so doing establish the most basic conceptual parameters and standards of legitimacy for each historical epoch of intelligibility. These metaphysicians ontotheologies function historically like self-fulfilling prophecies, reshaping intelligibility from the ground up. Nietzsche, on Heideggers reading, understood the totality of what-is as eternally recurring will-to-power, an unending disaggregation and reaggregation of forces without purpose or goal. Now, our Western cultures unthinking reliance on this nihilistic Nietzschean ontotheology is leading us to transform all beings, ourselves included, into resources to be optimized and disposed of with maximal efficiency. I explained in my earlier piece that,

Within our current technological constellation of intelligibility, only what is calculable in advance counts as being. This technological understanding of being produces a calculative thinking which quantifies all qualitative relations, reducing all entities to bivalent, programmable information, digitized data, which increasingly enters into what Baudrillard calls a state of pure circulation. As this historical transformation of beings into resources becomes more pervasive, it increasingly eludes our critical gaze; indeed, we come to treat even ourselves in the terms underlying our technological refashioning of the world: no longer as conscious subjects in an objective world but merely as resources to be optimized, ordered, and enhanced with maximal efficiency (whether cosmetically, psychopharmacologically, genetically, or even cybernetically).”

In this excerpt, we find the claim that technology—instrumental rationalism—is really a definition of what exists; it is ontological. And, the crux is that in the modern age we have turned this understanding upon ourselves, and become objects of our own technological understanding.

Why have we done this? Because modern “rationality” provides no other way to think about anything, including ourselves. “Rationality” defines the field of intelligibility. Anything outside of this predetermined field of intelligibility is literally fantasy or non-sense, perhaps mental illness.

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There’s something to this. It seems to me the modern outlook goes somewhat as follows:

1. Existence is determined by the possibilities of knowledge. After all, if you can’t know something, how can you say anything about it? If you can’t say anything about it, though, it’s not part of your world, and it makes no sense to say it exists.

2. “Knowledge” is scientific knowledge in the current sense. Everything else is personal prejudice, opinion, taste, etc.

3. Science, however, is prediction, the ability to say what will happen given particular conditions. Anything else is untestable and therefore arbitrary assertion.

4. It follows that science and thus knowledge is equivalent to the ability to bring about arbitrarily chosen results within the limits of available resources—that is, to technology.

5. Existence is thus determined by technological possibility. If we can’t manipulate something to do what we choose then we don’t know it, and if we don’t know it then for us it doesn’t exist.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Dear Mr. Kalb,

I agree rationalism is a false god. Still, the detailed discussion is perhaps significant to the informed talents; but it appears to be an awful, awful discourse. I am sorry for being so blunt. But this is the wonderful nature of Mr. Kalb’s site. Mr. Kalb welcomes all views (as long as they are not profane). In the end, one must realize the arcane arguments of the apologists are not useful to the faithful in this blog, a public discussion of Catholicism and Christendom.

Technology is not arbitrary. Many people correctly realize one and one is two. We simply cannot choose to conclude Newton’s mathematical integrals are arbitrary.

Paul

The discourse is continental European in general style, so from an Anglo-American point of view it seems to make bizarre extreme claims. Still, Emerson said you can’t say anything without exaggerating, to draw attention to any particular thing is no doubt to exaggerate its importance, so I think it makes sense to read it as charitably as possible.

I agree that there’s nothing false or arbitrary about “technology” as a collection of techniques that enable you to do particular things like treat glaucoma. That’s not all it is though. It’s become a whole outlook on life and the world. Thus, for example, if you look at human thought and speech technologically you’ll view it as just a collection of events and habits that don’t refer to anything and can’t be “true” or “false” but nonetheless has a systematic effect on human life. The result is that you’ll view it as something that can and should be manipulated and reprocessed without limit, just as you manipulate and reprocess the environment of chickens in factory farming, so that it becomes “better” in a sense immediately comprehensible to someone who runs a factory—more uniform, more controllable, less conflict and so on. I think that’s what’s happened in current political and moral thought. Nothing can be allowed to mean anything because that might lead to conflict and make it impossible for administrators to adjust things so you get maximum equality and satisfaction of preferences.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I’m not sure I understand the complaint. Is the complaint that the modern internalization of technology is irrelevant to Catholicism and Christendom, or is the complaint that the post included substance that is incorrect?

If technology as a field of intelligibility is part of the “liberal mind,” and if the liberal mind constitutes the worldview of the ruling classes in the West, then Catholicism and Christendom are of mere sociological and historical interest within Western society, and can make no contribution to any matter of public decision. In fact, under such circumstances, Catholicism and Christendom may be considered anti-social and deviant as occupying a space outside the accepted field of intelligibility of all “rational people.”

The impact of technology on the Western liberal mind would therefore seem to be of some interest to both Catholicism and Western Christendom.

The post also illustrates the general demoralization in Europe over technology and its spiritual and moral effects.

You say that “technology is not arbitrary.” But, if technology determines, by its own self-adopted criteria what exists and what does not exist, it is entirely arbitrary, and those criteria (which constitute an ontology) are open to analysis and critique.

And, they have been critiqued; they are not accepted by all intelligent people.

For example, Eric Voegelin critiqued throughout his entire career the theoretical error of the West in its move to materialize the world, beginning with Newton’s Principia:

[http://www.fritzwagner.com/ev/materialization_and_sir_isaac_newton.html]

“By materialization of the external world we mean the misapprehension that the structure of the external world as it is constituted in the system of mathematized physics is the ontologically real structure of the world. The tendency of mistaking the laws of mechanics for the structure of the world makes itself felt strongly even by the middle of the seventeenth century under the influence of Galileo’s discoveries and even more so under the influence of Cartesian physics.

… . The movement gains its full momentum, however, only with the publication of Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, of 1687. The impact of this masterful systematization of mechanics on his contemporaries, coming at a time when the sources of an active faith were drying up, must have had a force that is difficult to reproduce imaginatively today. To a spiritually feeble and confused generation, this event transformed the universe into a huge machinery of dead matter, running its course by inexorable laws of Newton’s mechanics. The earth was an insignificant corner in this vast machinery, and the human self was a still more insignificant atom in this corner.

… . The obliteration of the substance of nature through the propositions of mathematized science that could still be resisted at the beginning of the seventeenth century had become an almost accomplished social fact at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The obliteration had been so thorough that Western thought has not completely recovered from the blow even today.”

In addition, Heidegger not only questioned the ontological foundations of mathematics (he is hardly the only person to have done this), he pointed out the several ontological and epistemological errors made by Newton (and Descartes), and repeated thereafter:
[http://ia300820.eu.archive.org/2/items/Recovering_Mathematics_After_Heid…