The Emerging School of Techno-Philosophy

7 December 2012

Friday


Learning to Love the Wisdom

Homo technologiensis

of Industrial-Technological Civilization


A confession of enthusiasm

Allow me to give free rein to my enthusiasm and to proclaim that there has never been a more exciting time in human history to be a philosopher than today. It is ironic that, at the same time, philosophers are probably held in lower esteem today than in any other period of human history. I have recently come to the opinion that it is intrinsic to the structure of industrial-technological civilization to devalue philosophy, but I have discussed the contemporary neglect of philosophy in several posts — Fashionable Anti-Philosophy, Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy, and Beyond Anti-Philosophy among them — so that is not what I am going to write about today.

Today, on the contrary, I want to write about the great prospects that are now opening up to philosophy, despite its neglect in popular culture and its abuse by the enthusiasts of a positivistically-conceived science. And these prospects are not one but many. In some previous posts about object-oriented philosophy (also called object-oriented ontology, or OOO) I mentioned how exciting it was to be alive at a time when a new philosophical school was coming into being, especially at a time when academic philosophy seems to have stalled and relinquished any engagement with the world or any robust relationship to the ordinary lives of ordinary human beings. (As bitterly as the existentialists were denounced in their day, they did engage quite directly with contemporary events and contemporary life. Sartre made a fool of himself by meeting with Che Guevara and by mouthing Maoist claptrap in his later years, but he reached far more people than most philosophers of his generation, and like fellow existentialist Camus, did so through a variety of prose works, plays, and novels.) Now I see that we live in an age of the emergence of not one but of many different philosophical schools, and this is interesting indeed.

Philosophical periodization: schools of thought

Anyone who discusses so-called “schools” in philosophy is likely to run into immediate resistance, usually from those who have been characterized as belonging to a dubiously-conceived school. As soon as Sartre gave an explicit definition of existentialism as being based on the principle that existence precedes essence, Heidegger and Jaspers explicitly and emphatically denied that they were “existentialists.” And if we think of the hundreds years of philosophical research and the hundreds of philosophers who can be lumped under the label of “scholasticism,” the identification of a school of “scholastic” philosophers would seem to be without any content whatsoever.

Nevertheless, some of these labels remain accurate even when and where they are rejected. While Heidegger and Jaspers rejected the principle that existence precedes essence, there is no question that all three of these great existentialist thinkers were preoccupied with the problematic human condition in the modern world. Similarly, the ordinary language philosophers had their disagreements, but there were unified by a method of the analysis of ordinary language.

The school of techno-philosophy

With this caveat in mind about identifying a philosophical “school” that will almost certainly be rejected by its practitioners, I am going to identify what I will call techno-philosophy. In regard to techno-philosophy I will identify no common goals, aspirations, beliefs, principles, ideas, or ideals that belong to the practitioners of techno-philosophy, but only the common object of philosophical analysis. Techno-philosophy offers an initial exploration of novel ideas and novel facts of life in industrial society, and especially the ideas and facts of life related to technology that rapidly change within a single lifetime.

What makes the school of techno-philosophy interesting is not the special rigor or creativity of the philosophical thought in question — contemporary Anglo-American academic analytical philosophy is far more rigorous, and contemporary continental philosophy is far more imaginative — but rather the objects taken up by techno-philosophy. What are the objects of techno-philosophy? These objects are the novel productions of industrial-technological civilization, which appear and succeed each other in breathless rapidity. The fact of technological change, or even, if one would be so bold, rapid technological progress, is unprecedented. As an unprecedented aspect of life in industrial-technological civilization, rapid technological progress is an appropriate object for philosophical reflection.

The original position of technical society

The artifacts of technological progress have been produced in almost complete blindness as regard to their philosophical significance and consequences. What techno-philosophy represents is the first attempt to make philosophical sense of the artifacts of technology taken collectively, on the whole, and with an eye to their extrapolation across space and through time. In fact, the very idea of technology taken whole may be understood as a conceptual innovation of techno-philosophy, and this very idea has been called the technium by Kevin Kelly. (I wrote about the idea of the technium in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium.)

Thus we can count Kevin Kelly among techno-philosophers, and even Ray Kurzweil — though Kurzweil does not seem to be interested in philosophy per se, he has pushed the limits of thinking about machine intelligence to the point that he is on the verge of philosophical questions. Thinkers in the newly emerging tradition of the technological singularity and transhumanism belong to techno-philosophy. Academic philosopher David Chalmers, known for his contributions to the philosophy of mind (and especially known for formulating the phrase “explanatory gap” to indicate the chasm between consciousness and attempted physicalistic accounts of mind) was invited to the last singularity conference and tried his hand at an essay in techno-philosophy.

Bostrom and Ćirković and techno-philosophers

The work of Nick Bostrom also represents techno-philosophy, as Professor Bostrom has engaged with a number of contemporary ideas such as superintelligence, the Fermi paradox, extraterrestrial life, transhumanism, posthumanism, the simulation hypothesis (which is a contemporary reformulation of Cartesian evil spirit), and existential risk (which is a contemporary reformulation and secularization of apocalypticism, but with a focus on mitigating apocalyptic scenarios).

Serbian astronomer and physicist Milan M. Ćirković has also dealt with many of the same questions in an admirably daring way (he has co-edited the volume Global Catastrophic Risks with Bostrom). What typifies the work of Bostrom and Ćirković — which definitely constitutes the best work in contemporary techno-philosophy — is their willingness to bring traditional philosophical sensibility to the analysis of contemporary ideas, and especially ideas enabled and facilitated by contemporary technology such as computing and space science.

The branches of industrial-technological philosophy

Industrial-technological civilization is created by practical men who eschew philosophy if they happen to be aware of it, and those with a bent for abstract or theoretical thought, and who desire a robust engagement with the world, turn to science or mathematics, where abstract and theoretical ideas can have a direct and nearly immediate impact upon the development of industrial society. Techno-philosophy picks up where these indispensable men of industrial-technological civilization leave off.

Once we understand the relationship between techno-philosophy and industrial-technological civilization (and its disruptions), and knowing the cycle of science, technology and engineering that drives such a civilization, we can posit a philosophical analysis of each stage in the escalating spiral of industrial-technological civilization, with a philosophy of the science of this civilization, a philosophy of the technology of this civilization, and a philosophy of the engineering of this civilization. Techno-philosophy, then, is the philosophy of the technology of industrial-technological civilization.

Philosophy in a time of model drift

In parallel to the emerging school of techno-philosophy, there is a quasi-philosophical field of popular expositions of science by those actively working on the frontiers of the sciences that have been most profoundly transformed by recent developments, and which are still in the process of transformation. This is the philosophy of the science of industrial-technological civilization, and it is distinct from traditional philosophy of science. The rapid developments in cosmology and physics in particular have led to model drift in these fields, and those scientists who are working on these concepts feel the need to give these abstract and theoretical conceptions a connection to ordinary human experience.

Here I have in mind the books of Brian Green, such as his exposition of string theory, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, as well as criticisms of string theory such as Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law. Some of these books are more widely ranging and therefore more philosophical, such as David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes — and Its Implications, while some appeal to a traditional conception of “natural philosophy” as in David Grinspoon’s Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life. While these works do not constitute “techno-philosophy” as I have characterized it above, they stand in a similar relationship to the civilization the thought of which they represent.

The prospects for techno-philosophy

As techno-philosophy grows in scope, rigor, depth, and methodological sophistication, it promises to give to industrial-technological civilization something this civilization never wanted and never desired, but of which it is desperately in need: Depth. Gravitas. Intellectual seriousness. Disciplined reflection on the human condition. In a word: wisdom.

If there is anything the world needs today, it is wisdom.

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5 Responses to “The Emerging School of Techno-Philosophy”

  1. uair01 said

    Hmmm … I like the idea and you mention a few names that are new to me.

    That you mentioned Brian Greene and his string “theology” fundamentalist sect was a bit irritating but you made good immediately by mentioning the string critics in the same paragraph 🙂

    You do not mention a few strands of science / philosophy that would be impossible without technology and that fit in your map:

    – Meta Math by Gregory Chaitin as an example of the limits of computability
    Chaos theory as another example of the limits of knowability and computability
    Information theory and mathematical ideas about information content and its paradoxes (white noise has maximum information content but zero meaning)
    The results from robot experiments suggesting that a brain could not exist without a body
    The idea of “emergent properties” that would not be explorable in social science without all the data that is gathered by computers and networks

    There is a very broad scope for real-live-touching philosophy in the technical infrastructure.

    And if you summarize modern philosophy as the ever growing discovery of human limitations then it fits in nicely.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear uair01:

      Thanks very much for your perceptive comments.

      The contemporary debate over string theory is particularly interesting from a philosophical point of view, since, to date, string theory is empirically equivalent to quantum theory — in other words, there is no empirical way to differentiate the two, and therefore no experimental evidence to separate the one from the other. But the advocates and critics of string theory view themselves as theoretical physicists, and so they seek not engage in a non-empirical debate as though they were disagreeing over empirical science, which they are not.

      The idea of emergentism goes back to C. Lloyd Morgan, and it was taken up early by by Samuel Alexander in his book Space, Time, and Diety, and also by Alfred North Whitehead. There is nothing intrinsically “technological” about emergentism, and the idea was explored before computers and networks.

      I really like your summary of modern philosophy as, “the ever growing discovery of human limitations,” and this would fit very nicely with the growing presence of constructivism (both in and out of mathematics), except I do not agree with you despite the attractiveness of the formulation.

      One of the most interesting features of what I have above called “techno-philosophy” is its concern with transcending limitations that had previously gone unquestioned.

      So I think that contemporary philosophy is equally dominated by the discovery of limitations and the discovery of novel methods of transcending limitations. Both of these efforts can be comprised under the idea of “exploring limitations,” so we might be able to agree that contemporary philosophy is concerned with the exploration of limitations.

      Whether these limitations are subsequently transgressed or observed is another matter.

      Sincerely,

      Nick

      • Sam said

        Where would you feel that Dark Matter and the Higg’s Boson fall into this?

      • geopolicraticus said

        Dear Sam,

        It would be easy to write a book-length exposition on the relation of recent scientific ideas such as dark matter or the Higgs boson to the emergence of techno-philosophy. How can this be done in brief?

        As traditional philosophy has fallen into disrepute, scientists have taken up the mantle and have become as speculative as any philosopher of the past. Contemporary science abounds in weird and wonderful ideas that are as little tied to observation and empirical evidence as any metaphysics of the past — which is to say, there is a relation, but it is a tenuous relation.

        With “dark matter” a cipher is thrown into the midst of science, like Eris throwing the apple of discord into the midst of Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Dark matter is not an entity or a theory, it is simply a cipher for whatever would account for the missing mass if we had a theory to account for the missing mass in the universe (and if this is the correct approach to explaining what appears to be missing mass, as, e.g., when we observe that galaxies seem to be rotating faster than they ought to be given their detectable mass).

        The Higgs boson is a little more systematic, being an attempt to force mathematical order and harmony on the “particle zoo” and to make it all cohere. The “discovery” of the Higgs boson makes a good story (especially when it is framed as the “God particle”) for the popular press to try to humanize advanced science, and it is good for fund raising for projects like the LHC, but the subtleties of the discovery are lost in such grandstanding. The “discovery” of the Higgs boson has not closed off the particle zoo as a coherent and unified whole, but has rather complicated matters. When the LHC ramps up to full power operation with his current round of improvements, there will be much to be learned, and what will be learned is likely to lead to greater complexity, not simplicity, until we approach a kind of Ptolemaic particle theory awaiting a Copernicus of physics.

        Best wishes,

        Nick

  2. […] Ed Techno-philosopher – The techno-philisopher is fascinated by the many philosophical question that come from exploring the nature of life in an […]

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