Monday, August 16, 2010

On The Religion of Technology

I just finished reading a rather interesting book I got at Half-Price Book, The Religion of Technology. Unsurprisingly, it's a history of how religion (namely Christianity) and technology have been closely linked throughout much of western history. It was definitely an eye-opened as to how related the two have been, and it got me thinking about the relation between faith and technology--a relevant question since I'm a computer science major.

In the early days of the Christian church, St. Augustine wrote that technology had little to do with the spiritual condition of mankind; indeed he thought human reliance on it was a sign of our fallen condition. It had no ability to make us better, which only the grace of God could do; technology only provided temporary comforts to a fallen world.

But Europe soon moved beyond this view. In the Middle Ages, technology somehow became strongly linked with human transcendence--a way to recover the perfection that we lost in the fall. Advancement of the "useful arts" was considered a virtue, a step toward restoring mankind's lost mastery over nature and even his sinful condition. (How they thought improved agriculture, textile production, and waterwheels would improve human nature, I have no idea) This literally religious devotion to advancement of technology began in monasteries and moved outward to European society at large. In the thirteenth century, Michael Scot (not of The Office) wrote that "the primary purpose of the human sciences is to restore fallen man to his prelapsarian [before the fall] position."

But wait, it gets better! Contrary to St. Augustine, who held that the second coming of Christ was a mystery known to God alone and uncorrelated with human history, Joachim of Fiore wrote an intensive commentary on the book of Revelation. He stated that history could be divided into three stages corresponding to the parts of the trinity and that they were now in the third stage, represented by the Holy Spirit and the monk. In his system of thought, humanity was actively involved in bringing about the prophesied thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, the Millenium, and self-improvement by technological advance was the key. Joachim belived that, far from having no need for technology before the fall, Adam had a full knowledge and mastery of science and creation and by developing the "useful arts", they could recover what had been lost in the fall.

So, believe it or not, it was this system of thought that drove scientific advancement in Europe for centuries. As time went on, the goal went beyond simply recovering the perfection of Adam to becoming like God himself. In their early days engineers were seen as new Adams, the "new spiritual men". The utopias of the 19th century that you probably studied were attempts to recreate the perfection of Eden. Even in the 20th century, nuclear weapons were identified with the fire of biblical Armageddon, space travel was seen as a way of escaping a fallen world to reach paradise, and artificial intelligence and genetic engineering were compared with the creative acts of God. I had trouble believing some of what the author was saying, but he clearly isn't just twisting a few random quotes to make his point; he cites a wealth of sources from innovators throughout the centuries expressing unambiguous faith in the inextricable link between technological advance and the spiritual condition of humankind.

His final point is that this relation between religion and technology has to end. In pursuing transcendence, he argues, people have forgotten the original, Augustinian purpose of technology: to ease suffering and improve life in the here and now, not transport us to some paradise. It's a fine point, and a return to sanity after all his descriptions of Babellian levels of hubris.

Besides the frankly crazy Millennial view of technology held by so many, I saw two other bad philosophies woven into much of the book's narrative: a critical misunderstanding of human nature, and good old dualism. The former showed up in the belief that through intellectual progress and technological advancement, mankind could perfect itself and create an earthly paradise. Ignorance, not sinfulness, is seen as the greatest problem facing us, and by simply recovering the knowledge lost in the fall perfection is restored. The latter showed up mostly in the 20th century part, as well as earlier as philosophers like Decartes draw a sharp line between the malfunctioning, evil bodies we're trapped in and the perfect, transcendent mind that would be happiest without them. (Riiiight) It's a return to the ancient Greek philosophers who thought that the physical world is false and the spiritual "world of forms" and thought is true and good. (Philosophy majors, feel free to correct me if I butchered any of this) Artificial intelligence and the hope of uploading the human mind to a computer was viewed as a chance to free the mind from the body and attain immortality.

Okay, I'm going to stop parroting the book and get to what I think. The spiritual significance attached to technological advance is a self-perpetuating myth, founded on peoples' hopes and misquoted Bible verses. The biblical account of creation seems more to support Augustine's view; whether of not Adam had sophisticated knowledge of creation, it didn't matter compared to the knowledge he had of God. It seems like the Millennial view of technology has been largely self-sustaining, sticking around simply because no one managed to question it enough. Once Joachim's interpretation of prophecy became widely accepted, it was hard to stop. Additionally, I can imagine that the prospect that you can hasten the return of Christ and perfect humanity by inventing things would be quite attractive and hard to let go of.

The supposed perfectibility of humanity by technology is completely contradicted by our inherent sinfulness, covered extensively by Paul in Romans, which science (which is concerned only with the natural world) is powerless to change. He speaks against the dualistic disdain for the body in 1 Corinthians 6:15, calling our bodies "members of Christ himself"; later in chapter 15 he promises that God will give us perfect new bodies (not robots); our ultimate destination is in perfected flesh, not as disembodied minds.

And, of course, in Matthew 24, Christ assures us that His return will come unexpectedly at a time known only to the Father. The initiative is completely His and we have no part in it. And they claimed their fervent advancement of science and technology was Biblically motivated! Indeed, the quest to build God's perfect kingdom, hasten his return, and find a perfect life on earth is incredibly human-centered, with religious faith serving mostly just as a justifier.

My view is a combination of the author's and Augustine's. Like Augustine, I wouldn't attach any spiritual significance to technology; it's at heart a tool for easing our lives in a fallen world, not a means for transcendence. As far as I know, Jesus never mentioned the subject; He certainly wasn't known for His innovations in the useful carpentry arts. I tend to organize things into a hierarchy of "significance": God at the top, then the angels and heavenly beings; below them is humanity, made "a little lower than the angels" (Hebrews 2:7), then the rest of God's creation, and finally, at the bottom, human inventions. I hesitate to even call them creations, because all we can do is take what God has already made and rearrange it into pale reflections of His handiwork; it's like a child playing with LEGOs while his father builds skyscrapers. If technology has any spiritual significance, I would classify it, in the words of C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, as "from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material." If we let created things rule us, then they are evil; if by faith we trust and obey God, then we can find ways to use that raw material for His purposes and they are good.

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