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.