Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Technology and Abstraction: Follow Up

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.


Kenn Hermann said...

Okay, Rudi. I see that you are bound and determined to arouse me from my slumber -- I mean grading essays. I knew that I should not have sneaked a peak at my blog until I was finished with them. It is stimulating to be pressed by your acute questions. I am still writing out my response; it just got much longer. I find I think best when I am responding to a sharp interlocutor, as you certainly are. Soon I will have that book I should have been writing.

I love how I can 'choose an identity' in the blogosphere. Free at last!

Rudi said...

Yes I am determined, but I am also fairly patient, so take the time necessary to do the issues justice. If I have helped provoke a book then so much the better.

Macht said...

Abstraction, in itself, is not a problem. The only reason that "scientific theorizing has greatly extended our understanding of the world" is because it is followed by synthesis. If this doesn't follow, then we have reductionism and this tends to cheapen our world, not extend our understanding of it. I would argue that a similar thing occurs with technology. Most of the technological abstractions that Kenn has talked about, I would call reductionism. That is, in his most recent post, Kenn is talking about the reduction of animals to an economic product. Now, it is perfectly okay to talk and think about the economic aspect of, say, chickens but when we take that aspect and lift it above the biological, ethical, etc. then we are reducing the chicken to just an abstraction.

Rudi said...

Thanks Macht, though your points provoke further questions. Doesn't scientific theorizing necessarily include synthesis? And is reductionism just the result of a lack of synthesis?

On chickens I agree with you and Kenn. Perhaps we can conclude that the problem is not that technology is necessarily abstract (in a way analogous to scientific theories) but that this so easily tempts us to treat real world situation/relations in an abstract way (again analogous to the epistemological-ontological slide that Glas identifies in his article).

Does that make sense?

joel hunter said...

I am both excited and skeptical of this claim by my fellow reformational thinkers that I hear from time to time regarding the distinctive contribution of christian scholarship: "analysis of central concepts in relation to these absolutizing and reifying tendencies." Should there not be substantive contributions to cracking some of these hard conceptual nuts (in the form of original theses and "testable" ideas) and not just critique?

It isn't at all clear to me that the christian has a leg up on the analysis anyway. For example, on the problem(s) stated in this post, Husserl's Crisis texts might precede and be helpful. Abstraction is one feature of the mathematization of nature (formalization another). Mathematization seeks to lay out in advance the ways in which the real is rational. With Galileo, the Western project arrived at the point where fundamental determinations are necessarily in terms of number. The real is the measurable, the quantifiable. Technology, then, is the know-how, the techniques for obtaining these quantities from nature, and the subsequent complex of historical-material prostheses that enable and advance them. Thinking against the grain of this logocentrism will inevitably strike the hearer as quixotic, agrarian, sentimental, etc. It seems there are some historical questions that we must come to terms with before we can determine the use and abuse of technology for life. In my limited reading, it seems that the christian's relation to modern technology is deeply ambivalent. This ambivalence might be a fruitful place to spend some analytical capital. No?

Rudi said...

Thanks Joel for these thoughts. On your first point I totally agree; reformational thinkers should be thetical as well as critical. Also on your second point I think we are in agreement. Non-christians are often well ahead of us in their understanding of creation so plenty to learn there.

Thanks for reminding me about Husserl's text on the crisis of the european sciences (the title is somthing like that right?). I did have a look at it once but was busy with other things at the time, so one to get back to in the years to come (God willing).

Lastly, I think I would probably say that technology itself is "deeply ambivalent". We should be as clear as possible in our critique of its negative sides and clear about its rightful task. My question really, and it is a genuine one for me as I haven't worked it out, is how far does the critique of abstraction take us in understanding the ambivalence of technology? Is it possible to see abstraction itself as also abivalent?