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Essence, Existence, and the Dominance of Technology

April 20th, 2009 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Andrew Feenberg, who specializes in the philosophy of technology, points out that the crucial difference between modern and pre-modern conceptions of technology.  He writes:

"In the Greek view of things each techne includes a purpose and a meaning for the artifacts the production of which it guides.  Note that for the Greeks, technai show the “right way” to do things in a very strong, even an objective sense. Although artifacts depend on human activity, the knowledge contained in the technai is no matter of opinion or subjective intention. Even the purposes of things made share in this objectivity insofar as they are defined by the technai."

This view of technology is grounded in their particular metaphysics, which acknowledged that the existence of a thing was separate from its essence.  The chair, in other words, has a form that can be either be conceptually or actually separated (as in Plato's theory of the forms) from the existence of any particular chair.

Abstract theorizing, yes, but it matters.  The implication of this metaphysics is, as Feenberg points out, that the arts were "intended to bring existence to its essential form."  The idea of essences necessarily imposes limitations on technological development--not limitations from without, as a political body might limit development, but limitations intrinsic to the pursuit itself.  The form implies a certain function, and consequently technological development will have an end.

Descartes, Bacon, and others (one is tempted to blame Duns Scotus) effectively killed this view of the world.  Rather than working within nature, when we pursue technological development we become (as Descartes puts it) the "masters and possessors of nature."  Again, Feenberg:

"For us essences are conventional rather than real. The meaning and purpose of things is something we create not something we discover. The gap between man and world widens accordingly. We are not at home in the world, we conquer the world. This difference is related to our basic ontology. The question we address to being is not what it is but how it works. Science answers this question rather than revealing essences in the old Greek sense of the term...The goals of our society can no longer be specified in a knowledge of some sort, a techne or an episteme, as they were for the Greeks.  They remain purely subjective arbitrary choices and no essences guide us.  This has led to a crisis of civilization from which there seems no escape we know how to get there but we do not know why we are going or even where.  The Greeks lived in harmony with the world whereas we are alienated from it by our very freedom to define our purposes as we wish."

In a world without essences--where nature is subject to the shaping and fashioning of human desires--then technology will inevitably be the new queen of the sciences, subordinating even science to its demands.  Additionally, the modern technological project leads inevitably to the crisis of bioethics.  If things in the world have no nature or no essences, then the same must be true of humans.  What began as inquiry ends in destruction.

What implications might this have for Christians?  It is tempting to hear echoes of God's command to Adam in the garden in Descartes' line that we become the 'masters and possessors of nature.'  However, I would suggest that a more robust doctrine of creation--one that gives creation a worth proportionate to its ability to exist independent of the will of God--is necessary to help navigate many of the ethical challenges we face.  Additionally, it is worth considering whether the critiques of modernity and liberalism are actually happening from outside its presuppositions, as those who are post-modern sometimes claim.  The logical extension, after all, of the death of essences is that we become arbirters of truth.

Finally, it is worth asking whether our sometimes indiscriminate use of new technologies--one thinks of Twitter, blogging, and new media--is worth the cost.  While we contextualize the Gospel using the tools of the world around us, we potentially erode the Gospel in favor of the technocracy of modernity.  Here, I think, evangelicals have much to learn from the critical distance of the Amish, the Orthodox, and the Catholics in their respective communal lives.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.