Christian Ethics in a Technological Age

Christian Ethics in a Technological Age

by Brian Brock


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802865175
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 06/28/2010
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Brian Brock is lecturer in moral and practical theology atthe University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He is the author ofSinging the Ethos of God: On the Place of ChristianEthics in Scripture and has written extensively onmedical ethics and disability theology. For moreinformation, visit the University of Aberdeen website.

Read an Excerpt

Christian Ethics in a Technological Age

By Brian Brock

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 Brian Brock
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6517-5

Chapter One

Martin Heidegger on Technology as a Form of Life

Human territory is defined least of all by physical frontiers. JOHN FOWLES

Most accounts of technology assume that technology can become a problem for humanity in one of two ways. In the introduction I showed how the dominant discourse of technology assessment frames the problem as knowing enough to properly direct it. This instrumentalist view of technology is characterized by an interest in developing a range of strategies that ensure we control technology rather than allowing it to control us. Technology assessment approaches this task by cataloguing as exhaustively as possible the potential benefits and costs attached to a proposed technological development. Other approaches focus more on setting up procedures, rules, or laws that make it more difficult to misuse technology. Here we find strategies of containment such as the principled prioritization of the use of hand tools over power tools, or the reframing of the task of engineering with a much more conscious focus on the prevention of accidents rather than the traditional focus on mechanical efficiency.

The other dominant approach takes the problem of technology to be human ambiguity about the use to which it should be put. Technology going awry proves we were not clear about what we wanted from it. This is to conceive an ethic of technology as essentially concerned with the clarification of the proper ends technology should serve. This humanist account of technology resolves to put the human will in order by positing good ends for technology to serve. It assesses proposed technological developments according to moral criteria such as whether they advance the cause of the marginalized, whether any windfall produced is equitably distributed, whether ecological sensitivity is promoted, or whether technology's coercive potential is limited by more highly valuing individual differences.

Heidegger suggests that not only are both solutions dead ends, but they actually deepen the technological predicament in entrenching the assumptions that fuel it. On his account technology is not things we make but the way we live. A modern humanity ignorant of this distinction becomes a slave to the technological rationality that comes increasingly to characterize our relations with all things, culminating in understanding humanity itself as raw material. In this chapter I will not develop a full exposition or critical analysis of Heidegger's work, nor will I delve into the important and vexing question of how these ideas relate to his slide into Nazism, an important question in itself. My interest will be more sharply focused on exploring his account of why moderns have come to understand their relation to technology in these two ways, and what can be done to surmount them.

To expose the shared false presuppositions of the instrumentalist and humanist accounts of technology, Heidegger develops a genealogy in which technology is understood as playing a crucial role in the whole modern project. Though formative moments in the genesis of the modern way of life occurred in ancient culture, these scattered moments coalesced only in the last few centuries to produce today's highly technological societies. Because the rise of the Enlightenment marked a critical acceleration in this coalescence, Heidegger's criticisms of the instrumentalist and humanist positions are tied up with a critique of the Enlightenment rationality both take for granted. After tracing this critical genealogy, I will follow the development of Heidegger's late view of technology in which he strives to overcome the oversimplifications of the instrumentalist and humanist solutions. Heidegger's analysis is most fertile in thoroughly questioning the common presupposition that technology is exterior to us and something that should therefore be "guided." He questions the subject-object relationships assumed in Enlightenment rationality that lead analyses of technology into so many intractable blind alleys. In my view, his insistence that thought, action, and making be understood as indissolubly connected reveals technological activity as much more than a "merely technical" pursuit. In later chapters I will indicate why Christians ought to take such insights as indispensable to a properly theological account of technology.

The Sociality of Perception: Beyond Idealism and Empiricism

In the seminal essay "Nietzsche's Word: God Is Dead" Heidegger summed up a decade of his Nietzsche research and laid out the program for his mature philosophy in which analysis of modern technology plays a pivotal role. He begins from the basic insight of the phenomenological tradition that the reliance of Western metaphysics on a Platonic scheme, in which the truth of beings is assumed to be above humans in a supersensory or ideal world, has always functioned to downplay the importance of concrete attentiveness to the beings we can immediately sense. His mature project is therefore to uncover what has been obscured by this metaphysics. The reason this is a particularly urgent undertaking, he suggests, is that the natural sciences are currently filling out our knowledge of these obscured regions of the cosmos, but in a philosophically naive manner determined by intent to use, the essence of the technological. Heidegger's philosophy is therefore set firmly in a modern scientific context, in which philosophy cannot evade an intimate and respectful, if critical, contact with the natural sciences: "To think in the midst of the [natural] sciences means: to go past them without despising them."

His entry point into this dialogue is a reconsideration of some of the fundamental premises of the modern project. Descartes's "I think therefore I am" represents for Heidegger the pure idealist position in which true knowledge is graspable by the inward gaze of the solitary subject without reference to phenomenological investigation. Here one can only perceive the beings encountered outside the subject insofar as they conform to a concept deductive logic has provided to the rational agent. Heidegger protests that the application of any ideal description to an object in lived existence must tacitly assume that we receive some information about the substance of that particular thing that enables us to connect it to the ideal schema through which Descartes claims to know the world. The fact that Descartes cannot but rely on the receipt of phenomenological data not contained in logical ideas reveals the insufficiency of idealism as an explanation of cognition.

Heidegger's counterproposal is to suggest that true cognitions occur in the moments when the properties of things themselves disrupt our ideal schemas. Instead of understanding the disclosure of things to be a purely top-down project of inference, Heidegger holds that not only must ideas guide our exploration of the world, but these ideas must be continually formed and reformed as the world outside refuses to conform to our thought schemas. It is this unpredictable contradiction of our normal ways of seeing that we in fact depend on for knowledge. What we "know" are memories of such disturbances of our cognitive frameworks: "Conspicuousness, obtrusiveness, and obstinacy have the function of bringing to the fore the character of objective presence in what is at hand." The cosmos, Heidegger assumes, is pluriform in nature. We will always be aware of those aspects of this pluriformity that conform to our expectations, yet other aspects will remain invisible because they lie outside our schemes of categorization within which they might catch our eye.

Because Descartes's cogito ergo sum is uninterested in this unrecognized aspect of the ontological, pure idealism must be repudiated. Heidegger responds to this epistemological problem by beginning his philosophy not with the thinking being, but with the sheltering, eating, communicating being embedded in activity and learning. Rather than conceiving knowledge as originating in the rarefied air of solitary contemplation, he argues, philosophy must assume that for things to appear to us at all, they must have been discovered as relevant to our own lived existence. Within this context we learn to distinguish one thing from another from within the webs of human social communication and driven by our physical needs for food and shelter. The social matrix of thoughts, communications, and habitual behaviors through which we come to perceive the cosmos Heidegger calls "world."

The term "world" draws attention to the myriad of interconnections between our practical and theoretical behavior, beginning epistemology with the group rather than the individual. Many if not most of our daily habits happily proceed without explicit recourse to theory. Yet these very habits are susceptible to abstract theoretical redescriptions, through which explicit theoretical knowledge may arise. Nevertheless, this disengaged reasoning is only a special stance that can be intermittently taken up within a much more concrete and trusting reliance on things, and more importantly, people. Though later retreating from this initial formulation, Heidegger suggests that the basic untheorized level at which humans encounter all things is within the categories of usability. Humans discover the forest because it is timber, the wind because it fills their sails, but these things only appear at all after we have learned to harness them in these ways. On the basis of these relationships the possibility of theoretical thought arises.

Language serves as the conduit for the exchange of this knowledge of things and their usefulness. Communication is a series of gestures toward regions of being that may be useful to others. Put in more fundamental terms, humans discover aspects of the material world through the gestures of others that reveal regions of being as useful. Communication is not really comprehended until it draws us into its perception of beings, orienting us to our environment, helping us to understand what is useful for our sustenance. Human communication introduces us to the whole realm of things that a culture takes to be useful, so that the being nearest us becomes visible in its aspect as of some benefit to us. Signs explicitly indicate the relevance of the things we encounter, mediating world to us through the implicit inculcation of the habits and practices of our contemporaries.

If "world" is the semiotic and praxological context in which we learn to relate to things and people, Heidegger continues, then "care" is the self-interested concern drawing us into relations with things and people. We are never alone, always encountering others through inherited schemas of thought. The other is not first encountered from the vantage of a fully formed prior self-understanding on the basis of which I may posit other beings in differentiation from myself. Rather, it is only gradually that the dependent child becomes aware that it is an I, and that the other is a you, and that the I and the you care for different things. Even farther from us is the he, who is "over there" and most likely has a more divergent set of interests.

This thoroughgoing critique of the epistemology of the Enlightenment is not driven by the characteristically modern desire to construct a better epistemological theory, but by moral concerns. Heidegger's work is seminal in its awareness that any critique of modern society capable of fresh insight must go by way of criticism of the reductionist and atomizing modern epistemology that organizes and orients modern moral selfperception. His alternative moral epistemology develops a sensibility we might call existential spatiality. The I is the being whose concerns are closest to me, the you those whose concerns are comprehensible and remain within the range of my ongoing attention, with the they standing at the periphery of my attention with distinct and distant cares only occupying my attention on rare occasions. This existential spatiality allows that even those farthest from my self-awareness are still present with me in material terms, through the artifacts their hands have produced that I live in, put on, and eat. My action shapes their life in turn by altering the world they and I share. I am always present to the other via my action and words as the other is present with me. I can be close to a loved one who is physically far away on a trip, just as I can be distant from the waitress serving my food. Heidegger wants to attune us to the ways we distance our attention from the people who are materially present to us, whose physical bodies are literally proximate to ours, but whom our lack of acknowledgment turns into objects. To take these interactions seriously means bringing to explicit awareness the many levels of our interaction with others.

Heidegger agrees with Descartes that philosophy cannot avoid beginning with an I, toward whom I gesture when I mean myself. Yet unlike the Cartesian self-reference, Heidegger's understanding of the gesture does not aim to define others (as rational beings, for instance), but is only a conceptually thin comment on the place from which all examination within social and material world must begin. It marks the durative locus for this exploration. This self is always concerned with its own possibilities, and is wrapped up in its own cares. In this sense, "care of the self" is a tautological phrase: what we care for gives us a shape, and so a form that may be described after the fact as "myself." We care to be engaged in knowing things because we care for the self, yet the forms this care takes are handed to us.

Having leveled this fundamental critique of Descartes, Heidegger leaves himself with an inverted form of Descartes's problem: he appears to have locked himself in a cycle of endless immanence without the possibility of transformative transcendence. Heidegger insists that Descartes's quest for a transcendent foundation of truth marginalizes human awareness of the given material universe in its Neoplatonic recourse to transcendent ideals. But having given such prominence to the social location of human knowledge, how does Heidegger escape from the opposite problem, that we can never think anything other than what other people think? The phenomenon of death, the temporal limit of the self, offers Heidegger a way out of this dilemma.

By locating the source of cognitive frameworks within the context of world, Heidegger now needs an account of the processes of human individuation. Some of us never emerge from our enmeshment in the thought and practices of others, an overidentification that leads to acting and seeing in ways simply prescribed by common opinion. In granting public opinion this solidity, individuals are cut off from any investigation of the reality of being itself. World delivers to us an account of all things that establishes our identity and chooses for us the possibilities of our own being. This understanding of truth grounded not in the truth of things themselves but in the public view of things Heidegger calls alienation.

Heidegger more commonly refers to this definition of the individual by the masses as averageness or inauthenticity, the state in which the individual's ability to care for his or her own individual interests is undermined in taking common opinion to be the standard by which my own flourishing may be discovered. Breaking out of the sway of averageness demands a transcending of our enmeshment in the other to establish a self. In contemplating our irrevocably unique death, suggests Heidegger, we come to understand our individuality. The solitude of contemplating our own death makes visible our sharp and particular individuality, that we exist in our own particular place, not the generic nowhere necessarily built into the public view. We may transcend our particularity not by taking an eternal viewpoint, but by particularization, by allowing our finitude, with its past, present, and future, to really affect us. Having come to know that we must be born in a single setting (past) and proceed to an utterly unique end (death), we are able, Heidegger contends, resolutely to insist on our individuality against a public view eternally enmeshed in the present. Death exerts an individuating force by enabling us to perceive world anew. It frees us from the sway of others' opinions and so allows us to grasp that other people also exist as individuals and not as means to our own ends or those of the mass. This familiar Kantian account of morality hints that Heidegger's grounding of the capacity for transcendence in the structures of finitude thus far remains within the tradition of German idealism, which he has modified by locating it within Nietzsche's radically immanent grounding of epistemology.


Excerpted from Christian Ethics in a Technological Age by Brian Brock Copyright © 2010 by Brian Brock. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Christian Faith and Technological Artifacts....................1
1. Martin Heidegger on Technology as a Form of Life....................31
2. George Grant and the Technological Ideal 6....................66
3. Michel Foucault and the Habits of Technology....................102
4. Advent and the Renewal of the Senses....................167
5. Technology for Good and Evil....................191
6. Political Reconciliation in the Community of Worship....................236
7. Worship, Sabbath, and Work....................289
8. Being Reconciled with Creation's Material Form....................320
Conclusion: An Ethos of Dwelling in the House of the Lord....................374

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