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Technology and the Ethics of Responsibility

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Technical thinking as a means of domination is rooted in the autonomy or acclaimed self-sufficiency of the thinker. It does not recognize the limits and limitations of human thinking.

Descartes is the father of modern thought. Descartes dealt with technical rationality in such a way that especially the natural sciences—and, in line with this tradition, later the technological sciences—were used as instruments with the pretense of putting everything under the control of human beings to solve human and cultural problems, both old and new.

Descartes says that the laws of mechanics are the same as the laws that hold for nature. He sees even animals as automatons. In other words, nature is made up of material mechanisms. The mechanization of the world picture, to use a phrase of Dijksterhuis, is the result. Supposedly, once people know the power connections in nature, nature can be deciphered and directed. Descartes no longer acknowledges the integrity and intrinsic worth of plants and animals but sees them simply as manipulable things.

The fullness of reality is reduced to the technical use that people make of it. This Cartesian mindset is evident today in bioindustries and genetic manipulation. Technical thinking seems insatiable and increasingly totalitarian and imperialistic. We encounter this spirit already in a somewhat older contemporary of Descartes, Francis Bacon — Nature must be forced to serve humanity and, in that way, be made into a slave.

He contends that the development of science and technology should be applauded as imitating the divine works of creation. So, too, biblical-eschatological perspectives are reinterpreted into the prospect of progress.

Bacon was even of the opinion that science and technology could help humankind rise above the results of the fall into sin. He regarded his plans for the progress of science and technology as a restoration of the power that human beings possessed before the fall.

His concern was not to ameliorate or prevent suffering with the help of technology—no, science and technology would be able to repair what the fall into sin had damaged.

Themes of creation and redemption become tightly bound into one, something the twentieth-century philosopher Oswald Spengler captures in his pithy description: Technical thinking, once dominant, is unstoppable—it refuses to acknowledge the impenetrable mysteries that most deeply characterize reality as creation.

Once in gear, the tireless process of constructing and reconstructing all of reality ensues. What is there that cannot be measured, weighed, counted, and thus controlled? Reality is just one big machine or, to use more modern terminology, just one huge information-processing system. The notion of technological control arose from the pretended autonomy of humankind, from the claim to absolute freedom—and the assumption that scientific-technical control will enhance this freedom.

More and more, problems are presumed to be opportunities for scientific-technical resolution. In a certain sense, only those problems are recognized that can be solved through science and technology. Positivism later declared all questions relating to spiritual reflection and religious problems as nonsensical; they are, therefore, denied. It is not surprising that the technological culture that took shape is accompanied by secularization and a spiritual void on a scale previously unheard of.

We could say that hidden behind the facade of modern technology and the mask of autonomous individual freedom is a spiritual vacuum. That people are not inclined to deny this, makes the situation even worse. The result is that a technical way of thinking, a technological mindset, pervades the entire culture.

Its influence is evident in many sectors of society. In turn, the interrelationships of science, technology, and the economy are likewise influenced by an overextended technical spirit. The spirit of the Enlightenment, in particular, promoted the influence of the technical control mentality.

The pretense of human autonomy, humanity as Prometheus, attached itself to a scientific engagement that knew no bounds. Inspired by the successful development of the natural sciences, heroic Enlightenment figures believed that they would be able to overcome all problems and to renew themselves and society by means of the natural sciences.

Because no other norm except the standards of instrumentalistic science itself was recognized, the way lay open for the limitless scientific-technical manipulation of all of reality. This dominating role of scientific thinking meant that every nonscientific authority was dismissed.

With that, the definitive breach from God as the Origin of all things was accomplished. In the course of time, the power of science soon knew no peers. As Christian convictions were secularized and Enlightenment trends were uncritically adopted, the Christian faith was secularized and resistance to the absolutization of science gradually diminished, a thoroughly secular vision for the future gained sway. Given that spiritual climate, positivism and pragmatism easily undid any resistance to the unhindered scientific-technological control of reality.

The greater the influence of secularized science and technology have become, the more all of reality is seen as matter-of-factly material and hence as controllable in a completely technical and rational manner. In this case, fundamental questions about what is behind the development of technology, its origin and meaning, and the values and norms that hold for technology are simply not asked. Modernity and expecting too much from modern technology go hand in hand. He shows that since the Renaissance, many have claimed that technological practice puts us in a position to behave like gods.

Technology is linked here, for the first time, with the idea of cocreation and coredemption. Notwithstanding the continued effect of evil, people in philosophical and scientific circles thought they could restore the original paradise with the help of technology. Technical Man is the new Adam. According to Noble, the expectation of salvation through technology lives in all new areas of technological development.

With the help of quotations from space scientists, representatives of Artificial Intelligence, developers of cyberspace and virtual reality, and representatives of genetic manipulation, he documents their religious adoration of technology. Limits of space and time are transcended by technology; people strive to achieve machinelike immortality and long to perfect a digital presence of mind that will be omnipresent in the cyberage.

Genetic manipulation likewise assures them of a re-created, new humanity. Whatever does not fit into the technological model is usually disregarded or forgotten. As the purview of technical thought expands, the extent of reality shrinks. What remains is taken to be a conglomerate whole that is open for technological improvement. This overextended, technical way of looking at things translates into a technological world picture to which our culture has become enslaved.

This world picture, like the technological developments that it produced, is not static. In fact, the discoveries and innovations, and the technological advancements to which they give rise, render this world picture more dynamic and more easily adaptable.

The technological world picture is therefore continually revised by new technological developments. It is, however, a human construct that functions as a cultural paradigm—a type of ethical framework within which people think and act. It sets the norm; priorities, values, and standards of excellence are derived from it. Whatever science can analyze and explain, whatever it can manipulate, fits into this picture of the world— what science cannot analyze or manipulate does not fit.

This picture of the world has with time come to define the development of Western culture, and it continues to characterize the current globalization. There should be no misunderstanding, however: The problems do not lie with technology as such, but with the technological world picture.

This picture of the world, derived from technical developments, has a far-reaching influence throughout and beyond the scope and realm of technology. Not only has it put a stamp on the relationship to nature and the environment, the relationship to human society is colored by it as well.

By using technology, it strives to dominate or control both nature and society. Technological-economic powers, in particular, are the driving forces behind this picture of the world, and yet we all breathe its air. We all compromise ourselves with the desire for power and control by being touched as we are by the greed of consumerism. This picture of the world is actually a scientifically technical take on the world. The picture it presents reflects the image of abstract science, emphasizing functionality, rationality, and universality.

As such, it tends to reduce and level out reality. Sometimes its destructive influence even affects nature, from ecosystems to the biosphere, as well as society and the social environment.

The ecological crisis has been in the limelight of late, which cannot be said about parallel problems in society. But the technological world picture does not only generate a host of problems. In other words, the technological picture of the world defines contemporary ethics as well. It is difficult to keep oneself from conforming to a technical systems approach to ethical questions.

Current discussions in the ethics of technology are, generally speaking, limited to calculating precautions for behavior with an eye to reducing risk. People restrict their attention to the adverse symptoms of an otherwise limitlessly developing scientific-technical control.

In doing so, this ethics does bring relief to some of the problems technical developments create. On the other hand, changes in existing developments, the search for alternatives, and proposals to reject earlier decisions, seldom occur. People have become rather entangled in technology. Many may wrestle with that fact but do not really know which way to turn.

Information and communication technologies do not help matters. It is increasingly difficult to adopt another starting point, a different picture of reality with different priorities, values, and standards. In short, industrial and postindustrial societies are permeated by strong technical values, attitudes, and ways of thinking—few of which are being questioned critically.

Attaining power over reality is the implicit priority of this ethical stance. It follows closely on the heels of technological innovation. Values behind this project include economic self-interest greed and an across-the-board increase in consumption. The presumed outcome will find humankind front and center, in control, as lord and master of technical progress. What this will do to us as individuals or as a society, let alone how this will affect the environment, are questions few take time even to ask.

The norms that follow from the values of the technological world picture are effectiveness, standardization, efficiency, success, safety, reliability, and maximum profit, with little or no attention given to the cost to humanity, society, the environment, and nature. Material values and standards clearly have the upper hand in the technological world picture.

We continue to encounter more problems in which the technological world picture and the ethics that accompany it fail us.

This is especially clear from problems related to preserving biodiversity and sustainability. Recent decreases in biodiversity are shocking. Within the time span of a single generation, the number of species has been halved. This must surely be the result of looking at living reality from a predominantly technical perspective.

Sustainability ought to satisfy the requirements of the present generation without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to provide for their needs. Why is sustainability under pressure? Lopsided growth is engrained in the process from the start. As a result, sustainable development is by definition out of the question. Environmental technology may make some steps in the right direction, but these are often subsequently undone or negated by the technical economy, which provides the infrastructure for these environmentally friendly technical innovations.

The technological world picture also stands in the way of resolving growing concerns about climate change. Our way of dealing with creation prevents us from gaining a new perspective within which to revise the problematics of this impasse. The current cultural picture continues to be fed by a technological expectation of salvation.

Spiritually, the focus is on technology. Discussion of basic assumptions and questions about meaning are usually excluded, and reality is reduced to a reality that has to be controlled. The guiding principle is the picture of a technical construction that continually increases in strength. Reality has no essential value. The focus is always on its instrumental value. Plants and animals are prized primarily for their material use to us in science and technology. Even human beings are increasingly considered remake-able.

Werner Heisenberg has drawn an impressive picture of this situation: The ship can no longer be steered to reach any goal, but will go round in circles, a victim of wind and currents. Technical power has undoubtedly increased, but the threat of devastation has also increased. Technological advancement as such is turning against man and his environment. These threats are frequently veiled by the vaunted superiority of technological effectiveness and economic efficiency.

The ethical reduction these involve is scarcely discerned. This statement ought to be given more attention. Life as many understand it today was shaped and nourished by the spirit of the Enlightenment. Much good can be attributed to that spirit, but also much that is evil. In my estimation, current views about technology, generally speaking, suffer from a cosmological deficiency and from an ethical deficiency. Conceptions about the cosmos are often very limited because justice is not being done to the multifaceted depth and breadth of reality.

Reality is often reduced to the world that science and technology aim to control—to a positivistic cosmology, a view of the cosmos to which technology is the key. This lopsided take on the world does not do justice to the many-sided dimensions and coherence of reality in its fullness and pays no attention to its dependence on and orientation with respect to its divine Origin, no heed to the transcendental direction of everything. In addition to a cosmological shortfall, there is also an ethical deficit.

The world around us is taken to consist of things to be manipulated. Scientific-technological thinking reduces everything to the status of useful object. The unique value and meaning of things is dissolved into the use or benefit that that reality has for humankind. This ethical deficiency can best be characterized as the lack of love, because justice is not done to the peculiar nature, individuality, or uniqueness of things.

That is evident today in how the technological model dictates how we deal with animals. We see animals more and more as production units that supply the technologically defined functions we say we need. The ideas behind the therapeutic and reproductive cloning of humans also fit in with this technological world picture.

The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk provides a second illustration. He maintains that the influence of the Enlightenment in shaping humankind has not gone far enough and actually cannot do so. Human formation needs to be augmented with technological innovation. Developments in the area of genetic manipulation make that possible, and Sloterdijk is convinced that we should move in that direction. These things being the case, what constitutes a critical approach to the technological world picture?

The spirit of modernity seems to coincide with unrestrained technological development. Yet, as a result of the tangible problems and threats tied to that development, we are confronted in the meantime with all kinds of protest movements. Even so, the majority of people still support the Enlightenment project. The crisis is imminent: It is increasingly clear that our culture cannot handle both absolute freedom and absolute controlling power. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant answered the question as to what the Enlightenment is.

People of the Enlightenment have come of age and do not accept any guidance from above: Human reason is accepted as the controlling instrument: People set out to re-create the world as they wish it to be by means of science and technology. The spirit of the Enlightenment connects itself via technology and the economy with happiness and freedom,with optimism, progress, and utility on the other hand, it closes its eyes to the possible ill effects of its striving.

Many current cultural-philosophical critiques highlight the shortcomings of the Enlightenment. People are increasingly convinced that its instrumental rationality has and will continue to have devastating results because it implies reductionism.

There are two comments we may make about this. It is not merely guessing correctly, but necessarily involves reason and evidence. Imagine, for example, there were six people, who, by faith, each formed a different belief about the outcome of a single fair roll of a fair die, so that each person believed that the outcome would be a different number.

Excluding the possibility of the die not landing flat, we can be certain that five of the six would be wrong and one would be correct regarding the outcome. However, all of them, before the event, were equally unjustified in their belief.

A person who had real knowledge of such a situation would believe that each of the six possible outcomes would be equally likely. To believe otherwise is to show a lack of understanding and knowledge of the situation. One may, of course, bet on an outcome without believing in advance that that outcome will necessarily occur; this should always be kept in mind, for although beliefs affect actions, beliefs are different from actions.

The person with the true belief in the outcome of the die roll, far from having real knowledge, is really demonstrating the opposite. If one is to find the truth about any matter, one must avoid error. If one is in error about anything, one necessarily has lost the truth about it. Now, it is true that one may avoid error and still not gain the truth, but this only occurs when one suspends judgment about the matter.

If one does not suspend judgment, then finding the truth and avoiding error are in fact identical. Apparently James did not like to suspend judgment; he would rather make a bigoted and prejudiced guess than be intellectually honest and admit to himself that he does not really know.

Imagine a bigot, who hated all black people, believing because of his bigotry that a particular black person was a thief and a scoundrel. It may turn out, in a particular case, to happen to be true that that individual was a thief and a scoundrel as there are thieves and scoundrels of every color , but that would in no way justify the belief that was based upon prejudice and bigotry. However, he does seem to be mistaken about the best attitude of a scientist for accurate discoveries.

On the other hand, if you want an absolute duffer in an investigation, you must, after all, take the man who has no interest whatever in its results: The most useful investigator, because the most sensitive observer, is always he whose eager interest in one side of the question is balanced by an equally keen nervousness lest he become deceived.

Would it not be better if the scientist simply wishes to find out, with no interest in which outcome occurs? James is right in stating that one who does not care about the results will not be apt to be very competent if, in fact, this is what he means , but James is giving a false dilemma, or bifurcation, when he omits the possibility of a scientist who is interested in the results out of curiosity, but does not care what way the experiment turns out.

No doubt James is correct in affirming that there are truths that one will never believe if one only has beliefs based upon evidence. For example, you, the reader, will probably never believe the truth about what beverage I am consuming as I write this sentence.

But what does it matter? Even if it is a matter of importance to you, such as whether your spouse if you have one is cheating on you or not, would it be wise to jump to some conclusion prior to obtaining any evidence regarding the matter? Would it not be best to be especially careful regarding important matters? Yet James recommends the exact opposite, for he advocates faith regarding momentous options.

Obviously, this is not an example of something that cannot be decided on intellectual grounds; the point is simply that one ought to be most careful about what is most important, not the reverse, as James imagines. Turn now from these wide questions of good to a certain class of questions of fact, questions concerning personal relations, states of mind between one man and another.

Do you like me or not? Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation. But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence, until you shall have done something apt, as the absolutists say, ad extorquendum assensum meum , ten to one your liking never comes. Who gains promotions, boons, appointments, but the man in whose life they are seen to play the part of live hypotheses, who discounts them, sacrifices other things for their sake before they have come, and takes risks for them in advance?

His faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification. A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs.

Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted.

A whole train of passengers individually brave enough will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted.

There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. Yet such is the logic by which our scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our lives!

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