Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Distinguishing Nature from Artifice

A lecture on technology in a class on religion and the natural sciences may seem a little out of place. Considered as a form of knowledge, science is about heady ideas, whereas technology is about the everyday artifacts that help us get along in the world. And, as David Nye points out in Technology Matters, we tend to think of technology as a form of applied science. Without scientific advances, this line of reasoning goes, there can be no technological advances. Religion doesn't seem to have a place in the picture frame.

While this may have become increasingly true in the 20th century,  it was not always the case. Galileo's scientific discoveries for example seem to follow from his technological inventiveness. Upon hearing a Dutch inventor made objects appear closer than they actually were using with a series of refracting lenses, Galileo reasoned out how he could replicate and improve upon the result. Afterwards he turned his new magnifying glass skywards and noticed, among other things, topographical irregularities on the moon, moons orbiting Jupiter, and sun-spots. These observations precipitated an archetypal overhaul of astronomical and physical assumptions over the next few centuries--among which were included the perfect spherical shape of celestial objects and the geocentric character of celestial orbits.

The question about which comes first, whether science makes possible technological advances or vice versa, is a chicken and egg question, though very few people are willing to leave it as such. Most studies of cultural consequences of technological development presume technological development makes possible new scientific ideas. In the case of Galileo, the invention of the telescope made possible the eventual overthrow of an Aristotelian conception of the cosmos. Nye takes this up in his discussion of the widespread presumption of technological determinism in the 20th century.

More importantly, the question about which comes first is a characteristically modern question. An all-important middle-term has dropped out: the relation of technological artifacts to human beings. Most studies of the cultural consequences of technological development forget that technological implements (from shovels to computers) belong within the creative circle of human life in a way rocks, trees, and other animals do not. The difference between them is that between artifice and nature. Technologies are the products of human being's giving form to already existing material for some specific end; they are artificial human creations endowed with human purpose (even if, or especially because, not all of the consequences of technological innovation can be foreseen). Whereas the creators of technology are born into a natural world already filled with a myriad of natural things that exist independent of human creative input.

The distinction seems obvious when someone points it out to you. Evolutionary accounts of human origins, which blurs distinctions drawn between human beings and other creatures, however, tends to obscure the distinction between people and the products they create and use. Increasing urbanization doesn't help either, as it sets up artificial barriers insulating us against the extremities of the natural world, which we have always, and will always, belong to.

Early modern and pre-modern peoples were intimately acquainted with the difference between artificial things and natural things. Since neither you nor I 'created' the world in the same way that we create tables and chairs, the question, Who or what did create the world? seemed to naturally follow. The Greek philosopher Plato seems to have thought that the Demiurge created the material world in accordance with eternal archetypes. His student Aristotle considered the world to be eternally existent. The Jewish scribes responsible for compiling the Five Books of Moses, by contrast, were quite certain God created rocks, trees, animals, human beings, etc. What they all shared in common was that they drew a comparison drawn between God, who may or may not have created the natural world out of nothing (or, at least, without any helpers), and the human being, who created tools, clothes, shelter, and other such things out of natural materials found in the world.

The significance of this historical reflection goes something like this: Not having a divine Creator as a counterpart against which to measure ourselves has meant we think less on the fact that human beings create things and more on how the products of our creativity shape our lives. We no longer measure ourselves against a natural order; but now we are measure by our technological creations.