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.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Then, it may be that a source of the disconnect between Christians who say “embryo’s are life” and scientists who say “embryos are genetic source material” is that Christians still hold to that Greek view of things, at least sometimes. We would say that God himself is the source of a thing’s essence, but in this particular case we can see something that moderns seem blind to, and they just don’t get it when we say things like “life is sacred.” We sense in an embryo that its essence is human life created by God for his purposes. Technology sees the embryo as having a flexible essence defined by us and our wishes: either life if implanted in the womb, or cellular spare parts if nurtured in a petri dish in a lab. Similarly, a fetus is only a child if it’s a wanted child. It’s essence is determined by us, by force of our will. Does that sound right?

    We talk past each other because we have an ancient/modern disconnect in the way we view such things, and the technologies we make use of.

    Need to think some more about how Twitter fits in this. Just started tweeting and I’m not yet ready to go back to writing letters longhand. :) Good thinking, Matthew.

  • Charlie,

    That sounds right. I’d make one qualification, though: it might be the case that God is not directly the source of the embryo’s essence, but rather that it has it by virtue of its generation from its parents. In other words, there’s a debate in Christian theology about where the soul comes from–whether it is placed there by God at conception (creationism) or not. I am undecided on the issue.

    If you figure out how this affects Twitter, let me know. I’m undecided there, too.

    Thanks for the kind words.

    matt

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  • Just a caution about the ancient/modern distinction. The Greek position is not as monolithic as Feenberg says. For example, Aristotle thinks that rhetoric is an art/skill (techne); in particular, it is the art/skill of persuasion. And Aristotle is clear that rhetoric can be used to persuade people of both good and bad things. Plato’s view of rhetoric is dissimilar to Aristotle’s in this respect.

  • I.J.Reilly

    Do you follow Thomas along the lines of his analogia entis?

    How would you characterize the relationship between Philosophy and Theology? Do you follow Luther or Thomas?

    I think your instincts are right here. Have you traced Occam’s influence on Luther?

  • Burglar,

    I figured that. But I think the oversimplification is helpful for highlighting the differences, unless you think that such differences actually don’t exist. Do you?

    Reilly,

    Would it surprise you if I told you I probably agree with something like Aquinas’s analogia entis, but that I agree with Luther’s understanding of philosophy?

    : )

    I’m being a bit coy, if only because I’m undecided on the merits of modernism. I think that we have lost much because of it, but we have clearly gained an immense amount as well. After all, while we might all love Thomas’s philosophy, no one really wants to live in the Middle Ages, do they?

    I should also say that my interest in an amateur theologian is not necessarily adhering strictly to Thomas or Luther or Calvin or anyone, but to learn from them and then attempt to go beyond them in articulating the doctrines of the Christian faith in the present day and for our present circumstances. So even if I did agree with the basic outline of Luther, for instance, I might formulate it differently than he did.

    Matt

  • I would say that there is no one Greek view. There are the views of, say, Plato and Aristotle, which in general would be in agreement with Feenberg. But there are also the views of, say, Protagoras, which in general would be contrary to Plato and Aristotle’s.

    The same duality holds for the moderns. If Kant counts as modern, then the products of knowledge aren’t subjective (at least not in the straightforwardly questionable way that Feenberg says). Ditto for, say, Leibniz (who has a place for teleology in science) and (later) Husserl. Contrary modern views: in addition to Descartes, Galileo, Bacon, etc., probably Heidegger.

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