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Posted by on Feb 13, 2014 | 5 comments

Technology’s Lie and the Promise of Love

Last week Ryan Ricker responded (Evangelical Environmentalists and Ethical Oil) to my creation care (Salvation is not the Point: The Point is what we do with Salvation) post with an argument of technological optimism in support of responsible development. Tracing the development of Protestantism, science, and capitalism through the enlightenment’s pursuit of certainty, Ryan asks “So what is the goal to value: pristine earth or human flourishing?” He concludes that the questions of ethical development are questions of risk and potential harms.

star-trek-tng-s2-002firefly

However, to limit the ethical discussion of development to empirical arguments over projected risks or harms is to participate in the faith that technology will “lead humanity to justice and equality” by assuming that all we have to do is limit harm.[1] Like so many moderns before him, Ryan combines his confidence in the rewards of risk with a confidence in the ability of humans to know, learn, develop, and act in progression towards the good with the help of our technology. Hence he can say of ethical development: “[give] as much protection for the earth as your income will allow and the available science can develop, while minimizing waste […] income will rise […] science gets better, the bar should keep rising.”

This confidence is pervasive in our culture. If only we can develop the right technology, we are certain we can eliminate human suffering caused by disease and poverty – even sadness can be cured if we can map the brain enough. But this technological confidence – culturally illustrated in the Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Next Generation or in Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland – misses the truth. The confidence is built on the assumption that technology is neutral, objective, and outside ourselves and therefore the only sin or evil involved is within the user. Thus, by escaping the moral failure of the user, and achieving the objective certainty of the technology, we are promised a means of overcoming sin. This assumption hides the reality that technology is human work. It is our own action manifest. At the heart of all technology is a broken sinful human and the technology they design is by no means sin free.

Technology is not neutral. It changes us. It demands we use it in a certain way. This phenomenological given is even available to us in folksy idioms: to a man with a hammer – everything looks like a nail. Implicit in all technology is an assumption about the nature of the world. Science, which is itself a technology, assumes a material world of causality in order to investigate material phenomena. Because of this basic assumption, science cannot investigate non-material phenomena without reducing them to material components. For instance, how does science address spiritual phenomena without referring to brain structure, chemistry, etc? The same goes for all technology. One cannot interface with a computer without submitting to the mathematical reasoning that grounds computer technology. One cannot engage with a corporation without submitting to the neoliberal economic reasoning that grounds corporate technology.

Heidegger gave, what I find to be, the most useful assessment of technology. Technology, Heidegger argues, reveals to us a world of “standing reserve,” that is material resource to be used.[2] When our world is mere material resource why would we not use it however we want? Resources don’t have needs. And thus, our ethical deliberations are subjugated by the technological values of efficiency, utility, and repeatability.[3] In this technological world our ethical reflection is hijacked into a debate about utility and projected outcomes. But the nature of the debate about technology is not about utility – the nature of the debate about technology is about the meaning of human life on earth.

Are we here to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and technological prowess to make human value the exclusive value? Are we here to extract every economically feasible and useful resource from the earth for our benefit? Are we the crown of creation with the authority to view the rest of creation as our resource?

Or, are we meant to be gardeners who cultivate, encourage, and support through sacrifice and work the well being of the creation? Are we to, as Jesus does, empty ourselves out for the other?

At the heart of all Christian reflection must be the cross – an act of radical self-giving love by God for the creation he did not need. If that is to mean anything for our day-to-day ethics then we must ask, ‘Towards what is my love directed? What am I loving when I buy one item over another? What am I loving when I recycle or don’t recycle? What am I loving when I plant grass rather than a garden? What am I loving when I object to energy policy or tax policy? We are not called to go forth and eliminate human suffering via technology – though that impulse illustrates a gracious desire. We are, however, called to carry a cross of radical self-giving love in every aspect of our lives. Is this radical and risky? Absolutely: About as risky as he who invested his talents rather than he who pursued his own security through, the status-quo, risk management, and risk-averse policy of burying his. (Variations of this theme of grounding Christian ethics have been discussed on this blog by Eva, Alex, and Myself.)

Now, to be sure, there are technological matters for which the assumptions of technology and science are apt and appropriate. But we must de-frock their sanctified place in our culture’s ethical thinking. We must not make the mistake of letting technological reasoning define our ethics – or it will gut the heart out of them. Technological optimism is a lie. We will never be able to reason, observe, map, or experiment our way out of sin and suffering. But, we can love our way through it.

 


[3] Jacques Ellul writes on this quite extensively. See Understanding Jacques Ellul for a concise and accessible review of his corpus.

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J.W. Pritchett

I am a PhD candidate in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen working on a radical phenomenology of wilderness spirituality towards an evangelical environmental ethic. My wife and I live with our labrador, cat, and hens in the Scottish Highlands.

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  • Ryan R

    Good piece of writing. I am starting to appreciate the unique artistry behind a 1000 word post.  I like the “star trek philosophy” critique of my (so painfully brief) post, I would have used that myself! It kind of hurts to be called a modernist (although clearly justified here, and I do have a lot of experience living in that world). I see myself more as a postmodernist that is unwilling to stop at deconstruction, but instead retain a usable working model until a new paradigm is developed. 

    You have a couple of interesting points that I don’t think I buy into,  but Brock’ s book is obviously very relevant here and I guess I need to go away and consider that before saying much.  My problem is that ultimately our ethics must be based in relationship to God and those made in his image.  Technology is the work of our hands and as such is “cursed with thorns”, but is nevertheless work we must do, so yes I think we are called to use it to alleviate suffering and improve the human condition.  You can only love a person. 

    • J.W. Pritchett

      Thanks Ryan. I find it quite difficult to write to the 1000 word limit. But it is good practice. I have been trying my hand at letter writing recently too and it has proven equally challenging. Brock’s book it awesome. Highly recommended. Also, if you want a more personal narrative of how I think an ethic grounded in love plays out see Leah Kostamo’s Planted. The A Rocha Canada experience is super cool.

      I think there is only so much suffering that can be dealt with in a technological fashion mostly because I don’t think the root of suffering is material but rather rooted in the existential divide between God and humanity. That is something technology cannot address as technology is limited to addressing the material. Similarly a technology that is helpful is also destructive. Nuclear power is impressive as a source of energy and is also the core of the atomic bomb as a classic example. Genetic is impressive and can somehow, I am sure, be used for good – but it is also the core of eugenics. Thus, i think technology suffers from the same issues of human suffering and sin as all human projects.

      As I mentioned, I think there is a place and appropriateness for technological rationality just as there is a critical place for considering the material order. It is after all hard to care for the spiritual when the body has no water or what have you.

      As for only loving a person I radically disagree. Following in the shadow of Augustine here, I think all human action is rooted in love (P. Westerholm: Phenomenologically that is given as a love/fear dichotomy!) We love principles, ideas, objects, and persons. I love my dog as well as my wife. I give myself up to both of them. I even love the trout I fish for. For in their pursuit I submit myself to their being and I sacrifice my time, energy, concern, and efforts for their well being and restoration. If creation is an act of Love as the tradition contends- then God loved that which was not a person – the world. And then there is idolatry- which are the ungodly loves.

      • Ryan R

        Ok, I need a bit of research to respond properly, but my knee jerk reaction to that is: You can only “agape” a person, anything else is idolatry. This is the fundamental question of values that affects the whole discussion.

  • LA Green

    I pretty much approve any use of Heidegger on technology.
    It seems to me that the use of technology to make any changes in our use of the environment has more to do with orientation [mood] than anything else. There is a good way and a wrong way to plow a field- not just in the method, but in the intention.
    Ironically, Eva’s post on Heidegger and Berry dealt with this a bit.
    http://manyhorizons.com/2013/11/25/love-thinking-berry-heidegger-technology/

    • Ryan R

      Eva ‘ s (excellent) article confirms my suspicions that the creation care movement is advocating for a covenantal relationship with the earth.  This is either brilliantly Biblical,  or subtly and deeply heretical. I actually am not sure which.  It certainly explains why you get radical conservatives accusing you of “Gaia-earth goddess worship”