Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
I asked some questions a while back about the relationship between technology and abstraction in response to a series of posts by Kenn Hermann. Now Kenn has offered a partial reply with more promised.
Let me add a little more to the questions I originally asked. Abstraction is usually associated with theoretical thought, it is an important feature of such thought that nevertheless can play a problematic role in theory formation. Gerrit Glas gives a concise account of this in his discussion of contemporary philosophical accounts of neuroscience and the implications drawn for the problem of the mind-brain relation.* Before engaging in the theories of Churchland and Kandel he highlights the issue of abstraction using the term to refer to “the cognitive process of scrutinizing a particular aspect (or aspects) of the object under investigation”. What so often happens is that this epistemological or methodological form of abstraction is equivocated with ontological abstraction leading to substantializing and even absolutizing the results of scientific analysis. This slide towards the various –ism’s appears to be an almost inevitable consequence of scientific theorizing. Again Glas writes of “the elusiveness of the distinction between reduction (or abstraction) and reductionism and … the inevitability of absolutizing and reifying tendencies in science.” Glas sees the contribution of christian scholarship as consisting, primarily, of analysis of central concepts in relation to these absolutizing and reifying tendencies.
The negative consequences of theoretical abstraction are Glas’ main concern but if we return to his original definition of abstraction as “the cognitive process of scrutinizing a particular aspect (or aspects) of the object under investigation” there is undoubtedly much that is positive resulting from such activity. Indeed the development of scientific theorizing has greatly extended our understanding of the world and our power over it. So theoretical abstraction contains both promise and danger. Would it not be fair to say something similar of technological abstraction?
Going back to my earlier questions about technology one could answer that all (modern?) technology is abstractive, and that such abstraction always has harmful consequences. This seems to strong, yet Kenn has not excluded this possibility. I wonder how he might respond to the criticisms that his critique of technology of just a result of romanticising rural life? If abstraction is not always malignant then how do we judge in an individual case whether the technology is adequately responsive to appropriate norms, or what are the appropriate norms to which (abstractive) technology must respond? There is also the question of the influence of modern technology on the systems and structures of modern society. Even if the overall effect of technology has been negative, are there not possibilities, perhaps already partially actualized, of transforming these structures in a more responsible way, or is a return to an agrarian society the only way forward? (How would one respond then to the criticism that a "way forward" solely based on a "return" is dangerously reactionary?)
Does not the development of the internet (which makes this discussion possible), of kitchen appliances, of technologies that harness solar energy and such like have some positive consequences? I look forward to further elaborations of a reformational ontology of technology from Kenn Hermann.
Gideon Strauss has also just blogged on a lecture by Egbert Schuurman given at Redeemer University College.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Perhaps it is not in order but at this point I feel constrained to acknowledge that in criticizing certain opinions of another, one always has the disagreeable feeling of not doing full justice to the whole of the other’s viewpoint. There is, after all, no alternative. The reader will have to keep the fact as well as
the inevitability of such one-sidedness in mind, especially in the choice of illustrations. (The Society of the Future p.103)
Saturday, October 14, 2006
My church is putting on an urban harvest festival tomorrow. It should be really intersting with artists (including Henningham Family Press), doctors, musicians and others sharing their first fruits. It is a little late to invite people, but do drop in if you are in the area.
My contribution will be on philosophy. Here is a little piece I wrote for the event (thanks to Gregory and Paul for reading through it and suggesting improvements)
What does it mean to practice philosophy as a christian?
It might reasonably be asked why one would offer up philosophical work as first fruits to God. Is it really appropriate? I want to try and answer that question as briefly and simply as I can. My starting point is that of every Christian: “Jesus is Lord”. I find no reason to restrict this confession, leaving certain areas of my life outside Christ’s lordship. That certainly does not mean that my life is perfectly submitted to Christ! But it does mean that I have thought about what the significance of his lordship over my life requires from me in the area of philosophy.
One of the fullest expressions of Christ’s lordship is found in Colossians 1:15-20. Here Paul states that “all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (vv.16-17). This is important for philosophy, as since its inception it has sought to explain the origin of things and how things hold together. So, first off, a christian approach to thinking philosophically will reject all and any attempt to find the origin and coherence of our world within itself. Such attempts are forms of idolatry (see Romans 1:21-25). Perhaps the various forms of materialism, often touted as the results of scientific thinking, are amongst the most conspicuous attempts to do this today.
On the more positive side philosophical thinking along christian lines will emphasise the richness of God’s world, beyond any human attempt to comprehend it (see Job 38-41, Psalms 19 & 104).
To put things in more technical, though hopefully still understandable, language, philosophy involves and reflects on theoretical thinking. Now the development of theories often, if not always, depends on analysis, or in other words taking things apart in thought. We separate out an aspect of reality and focus on it, ignoring other realities with which it is connected; in a word we employ abstraction. Through an act of thought we leave the fullness of reality and investigate an isolated piece of data. If there is a faith in theoretical thought that leads one to believe it gives us the true picture of reality, against the ambiguities (and richness) of everyday experience, then the result of theoretical thinking will be equated with true reality. Given the nature of abstraction to isolate and focus on an aspect of the world, the equation of theoretical data with true reality tempts one to posit that aspect of reality as the independent and fundamental basis of all reality. All isms that one encounters in the different fields of scholarship, rationalism, behaviourism, psychologism, organicism, historicism, physicalism etc., give evidence of the seductiveness of this temptation.
One of the tasks of philosophy, conceived christianly, is to combat the tendency to reduce reality to one or two basic realities on which all else depends or through which all else can be explained. It also has the task of exploring the richness of God’s world as uncovered by the many fields of scholarship by giving a theoretical overview that remains open to further surprises. As with all cultural tasks this should be done in obedience to the two great commandments to love God and serve ones neighbour.
So now I'm back to the joys of teaching and those summer days in Italy are fading from memory. On Thursday I arrived in school at 8am and left at 9pm! That's not typical, but the demands of teaching and having a young family are what make this blog a brief and occasional intermezzo.