The Cost of Modernity
Throughout history, man has used tools or instruments to achieve his ends and to make his work lighter, quicker, and more efficient. A tool may be something that man finds in nature and co-opts for his own purposes. A man, for example, might, wishing to break open a hard-shelled nut, pick up a stone he finds lying around and use it to crack the shell. A tool might also be an instrument that man has designed and fashioned to serve his needs. Desiring to cut down a tree and chop it up into fuel for a fire, he may fit a sharp blade into a handle to make an axe.
At one time the making and use of tools was thought to be the trait that distinguished human beings from other animals. This is no longer the case because study and observation of the animal kingdom has revealed that that some other animals are capable of using and even making simple tools. Most often these are simple weapons, such as sticks used as spears or clubs. The point is that we now know that the making and use of tools per se, is not solely the property of our own species.
Of course, man’s capacity for making and using tools is a lot greater than that of any beast. Chimpanzees have the greatest tool-use capacity of any animal other than man. (1) They can make several different tools and can even make some very simple, compound tools. Even still, they do not come remotely close to man’s ability to create instruments to help him in virtually any task, to redesign his existing tools to make them better serve his purpose, and to create increasingly complex machines to perform larger and more complex tasks.
In what aspect(s) of human nature lies this ability?
One aspect of human nature that immediately presents itself as the answer to that question, and which in fact is an indispensable element of man’s capacity for making and improving tools, is his reason. Reason is the ability to evaluate ideas and facts, relate them to each other, and draw valid conclusions from them. Through reason, man is able to anticipate problems he will face and needs that will arise. By using his reason, man can deduce what the effect of a particular action will be and to calculate the ultimate effect of arranging actions in a series. He can also reason in reverse and thus figure out the steps necessary to achieve a desired effect. Thus reason allows him to prepare to deal with anticipated problems and needs. These are among the various functions of reason that contribute to the development of tools.
Essential as it is, human reason is an insufficient explanation. Science is also indispensable to the process of tool development and science utilizes several other human faculties in addition to reason. The chief of these is man’s ability to obtain and to store knowledge. Science originally just meant knowledge or, in a slightly narrower sense organized knowledge. Today, in the English speaking world, science has two meanings. It can refer to a very specific kind of knowledge, the systematic knowledge of the physical world. It can also refer to the methodology by which that knowledge is obtained. This methodology involves the use of the faculty of observation and the faculty of reason. Man accumulates raw data about the physical world around him through observation, and then uses his reason to form explanations of that data and to devise experiments to test those explanations. Apart from this methodology and the knowledge of “how things work” obtained by it, man could never have built the things he has built or devised the tools to have helped him build it.
Although there was an epistemological debate among philosophers a few centuries ago in which reason and science were pitted against each other as opposing paths to truth, a debate that still recurs from time to time, reason and science are clearly mutually dependent upon one another. Reason is itself a part of the scientific method and needs the information accumulated through science to be of any use.
There is a third human capacity which is even more fundamental than reason or science. Apart from this capacity science, in the modern science of the term, would be virtually impossible. This is the human ability to receive from those who have gone before him, the knowledge that previous generations have accumulated, to add to that bank of knowledge, and to pass it on to future generations. We have a term that we use to refer to both the use of this ability and to that which is handed down through the generations by means of it. That term is tradition.
Were it not for tradition, each generation of men would have to make the same rational deductions as the previous generation from scratch. Apart from tradition, men would have to make the same basic scientific discoveries every generation and would never be able to build upon what has been done previously. Without tradition man would be forever reinventing the wheel.
Modern man does not like to acknowledge tradition’s fundamental importance to human thought, science, and the invention and development of human equipment. This is because modern man, who lives in an era that has seen an unprecedented explosion in the invention and development of tools, has staked everything on the hope that the development of technology will continue indefinitely, (2) while adopting the idea that the path to the future lies in the rejection of the past.
Note that I said modern man has pinned his hopes on the development of “technology”. The word tools does not really adequately describe what mans instruments, devices, and contraptions have evolved into in the Modern Age. The Greeks used the word mekhane (μηχανή) for various inventions, such as cranes, engines of war, and theatrical devices. The literal meaning of the word was contrivance, i.e., something contrived or thought up as an artificial means to an end. This word has come down into modern language as the word “machine”. Five hundred years ago it still had its classical meaning but in the Industrial Revolution it came to be used to refer to a contraption that had moving parts driven by water, steam, or some other non-human source of power. The word most commonly used, however, to embrace everything man has invented to accomplish his purposes, is technology. (3)
While man has been making and improving his tools since the beginning of human history, in the last five centuries, the period known as the Modern Age, his technology has grown exponentially. This occurred in several bursts of creativity, starting with the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the period of European cultural renewal and scientific discovery and invention which launched the Modern Age, and including the two Industrial Revolutions in which the power of water, steam, coal, and eventually electricity were harnessed allowing man to greatly increase his production of food and other commodities and his ability to transport himself and these goods. Another burst of creativity began in the twentieth century and which has yet to run out, the burst which has produced today’s rapidly evolving communications and information technology, which has sent men into space and given us laser surgery, and accomplished so many other amazing things.
The men of the Modern Age, as we noted earlier, are loath to acknowledge that they are at all dependent upon tradition for the benefits of modern technology. The Modern Age is the age of progress and modern men pride themselves on being progressive and forward thinking people, who have set their back to the past and their eyes upon the future. According to the founding mythology of the Modern Age, tradition was a chain that held men back in darkness and superstition until man, reason, and science were liberated by the “Enlightenment”.
That viewpoint is in many ways utter nonsense. We have already seen how tradition is itself an essential part of any reasoning or science that wishes to build upon what was done in the past rather than to be continually starting over from scratch. Furthermore, the elements in the Western tradition that the “Enlightenment” mythology maintains were holding reason and science back, are in fact foundational to the principles of the scientific method. The idea that man can by observing the world around him, figure out the principles by which the world operates, presupposes that there is an order in the world to be observed, which itself is far more consistent with the idea that that order was put there by the God Who created the world, than with either the idea that it just happens to be or that it came into being on its own. Thus the basic principles by which empirical discoveries were made in the Modern Age were laid down by Christian scholars such as the Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, back in the supposed darkness of the Middle Ages.
Now an objection might be raised that the fact that this massive explosion of technology took place in an age which adopted an anti-tradition philosophy tends to support the idea that tradition held reason, science, and technology back. This is an important objection which needs to be carefully considered. I do not think that it can negate my point that apart from tradition, man’s ability to receive the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of past generations, and pass it on to future generations, neither reason nor science could function. Is it possible that tradition both facilitates and constrains science?
Yes, in fact that is the case. There is one sense in which it is correct to say that tradition holds back science. The bank of accumulated human knowledge and wisdom that is passed down through the generations as tradition includes moral knowledge which places constraints upon the human will. In traditional ethics, the end of human activity and of the organization of human society is declared to be the Good, and particular human behaviour is either praised and encouraged as being right or denounced and discouraged as being wrong according as it contributes to or detracts from the Good. Man’s desires, passions, and appetites, unconstrained, pull him away from the Good, and so man must rule his passions with his will. Man’s will, however, will also move man away from the Good if itself unconstrained by moral limitations. Whether in classical pagan or Christian formulation, this basic traditional ethics was foundational to all pre-modern Western civilization.
It may not be apparent at first how all of this relates to science and technology. Think about how and why man invents tools. He first of all desires to do something. Let us say he wants to keep rain from falling on his head. He then decides that he will do that thing. Next, he figures out a way of doing it, and then invents the instrument, in this case an umbrella, that will help him achieve his end. The whole point of inventing the tool, and of obtaining the knowledge necessary to invent it, is to accomplish the end that he has willed. Science and technology serve the will of man and are therefore themselves limited by what man wills. Limitations placed upon man’s will are therefore also limitations on science and technology.
Here we see how tradition, apart from which there could be no science and technology, also limits and constrains science and technology. It is also apparent why the Modern attitude towards tradition would correspond with an explosion in science and technology. The spirit of the Modern Age is one of rejection of constraints upon the will. Several Modern philosophers regarded the will as the fundamental fact of human existence. (4) Modern thought has so equated freedom with the rejection of constraints upon the will, as to make the classical Athenian and Christian concepts of freedom, a good compatible with moral limits on the will, virtually incomprehensible to modern man.
This brings us to the moral dilemma of modern technology.
Modern technology presents us with a moral dilemma but it is not one of the simplistic questions that are immediately evoked by speaking of a moral dilemma of modern technology. It is not a question of whether technology or even modern technology is good or bad. Nor is it a question of the right uses of modern technology versus the wrong uses. It is rather a question of cost, of the price modern man has had to pay to obtain the blessings of modern technology and whether those blessings are worth that price. (5) That this is the true dilemma should already be apparent in what we have discussed. If the rapid growth in the invention and development of technology in the Modern Age is due to that age’s having rejected traditional moral constraints upon the exercise of man’s will this renders the other two questions moot for the criteria by which to judge these questions lies in man’s knowledge of the Good, which is precisely what was given up to obtain the technology. This is the cost of modernity.
A little under a century ago, a book came out, written by a then unknown German teacher, philosopher, and historian named Oswald Spengler. (6) In that book, Spengler objected to the standard modern view of Western history as moving in a linear direction through three ages – classical, middle, and modern. In his view history was the story of cultures, spiritual communities that lived and died like any other organism, in a cyclical pattern, each having its own soul. The souls of these civilizations he classified into types according to the symbols by which they understood the world and the ideals for which they strove. For the classic Greek and Roman civilizations, for example, he used the term Appollonian as it had been expounded by Nietzsche to characterize the souls of cultures that strove after beauty and order. (7)
Spengler used the seasons of the year to designate the stages he saw in the life-cycle of a culture-civilization and he argued that Euro-American Western civilization, which he dated back to the tenth century, was in its winter. Hence the title of the book, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, which means The Decline – or Twilight – of the West. It is not Spengler’s prediction of the imminent collapse of Western civilization and the rise of a new Caeserism that is relevant to our discussion, however, but his interesting characterization of the soul of Western civilization. Since the essence of modern Western civilization is the rejection of limits and the pursuit of the infinite – Spengler identifies the West’s prime symbol as “pure and limitless space” – he dubbed the Western soul-type “Faustian”.
This term, of course, comes from the legend of Faust, the scholar who, bored with his academic pursuits, strikes a deal with the devil. The legend has been told and retold many times, in books, plays, and operas, but the version that Spengler was alluding to is the nineteenth century play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Whereas in earlier versions of the story, youth, worldy pleasures, and supernatural power are the temptations to which the scholar succumbs, in Goethe’s rendition it is the somewhat higher goal of infinite knowledge that is Faust’s chief desire. This is the whole point of the comparison made by Spengler in assigning Faust as the soul type of Western man.
Note, however, that while Goethe’s Faust may be a nobler fellow with higher goals than the character who appears in earlier versions of the story such as Christopher Marlowe’s, the price he agreed to pay was exactly the same – his very soul. (8) Is this also the price that was required of modern man for all the benefits of modern technology?
I don’t think that it is stretching the metaphor too far to ask that question. Since the dawn of time, man has invented tools to accomplish his ends. Where did these ends come from? Some arose out of practical necessity. He needed food, water, clothing and shelter to survive and so directed his activity towards providing himself with these things. It was in pursuit of a different set of ends altogether, however, that he built his higher civilizations. Men perceived a need for justice, and so built cities and enacted laws. Men yearned after beauty and so they created art. These things are not physical necessities but spiritual. Man’s spirit yearns for them the way his body craves food and drink. The highest of these is the Good. The greatest accomplishments of pre-modern higher civilizations were achieved in pursuit of these spiritual ends, which pursuit involved submission to them as external authorities and judges. If modern man’s technological advances were made possible by the liberation of his will from all traditional constraints then he seems to have purchased those advances at the expense of what lay at the heart of his earlier civilizations. If that cannot be described as the selling of the soul what can?
We now come to the question of whether the benefits of modern technology were worth paying this cost. It may seem like we are addressing this question at the point where we have just answered it. After all, did not the highest of authorities once poignantly make the point that nothing was worth this price by asking “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (9)
Against this, however, there is an argument to be made and, for those of us who enjoy and depend upon the advantages modern technology provides, it is a strong and compelling one. This argument takes the form of a question and it is simply this: would you, who live with the comforts and conveniences of a reduced workload, extended leisure time, electricity, refrigeration, indoor plumbing, air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter, motor vehicle transportation, and modern communication and information technology, be willing to give all that up and live without it? Or for that matter, would you who live in the age of antibiotics and anesthesia, laser surgery and robotic prosthetics, and all the other advantages of modern medical technology, be willing to take your chances in a world without them?
Most people, we can safely assume, would answer no to both of those questions. The modern mind finds it very difficult to comprehend the idea that the men of previous ages might have possessed something that modern man has given up and that this something might actually be more important to human fulfillment and happiness than the things modern man has which previous ages did not have. Modern men look at those, like certain religious sects, who to varying degrees have opted to live without the benefits of modern technology, as objects of wonder and sources of amusement. (10)
Herein lies the strength of the argument. We would not be willing to give these advantages up and most would laugh at the very idea of it. Since we are not willing to live without those advantages, we clearly value them over anything that man has given up to obtain them, and hence for us they are clearly worth the cost. (11)
This argument is not as ironclad as it first appears, however.
Consider what would happen if we were to take the argument’s question, remove the examples of the positive benefits of modern technology listed and substitute the following: nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, industrial pollution, antibiotics-resistant superbugs, killer bees, computer viruses and identity theft we would expect the opposite answer. Some of these were intentionally invented by modern science in the same way that the positive examples were, others are unintended consequences, but they are also the products of modern science and technology. If we were to ask the question again with these inserted, I suspect we could expect the opposite result, i.e., that most people would say yes, they would gladly be willing to live without these things. Clearly modern science and technology has given us something other than an unmixed bag of blessings.
If that were the only thing that could be said against the argument it would not be worth saying for the discussion would degenerate into cherrypicking the positives and negatives of modern technology and setting them against each other, which would be a pointless exercise. There are two other points that need to be made against the argument.
The first is that it rests upon an assumption which we have already refuted, namely, that the blessings of modern technology are to be attributed solely to modern reason and science. Although modernity does not acknowledge it, reason and science, even modern reason and science, could not accomplish anything apart from tradition. This is the great paradox of modern science and technology. On the one hand, its achievements would not have happened had modern man not radically broken with the traditions of previous ages. On the other hand, they could not have happened had modern man not built upon the achievements of previous ages contained in that same tradition.
My point is not that we ought to take the results of modern science, divide them into positive and negative, and attribute the positive results to modern science’s continuity with past ages and the negative to its break with the past. My point is that science is not something that man came up with in the modern age. Science was transformed in the modern age, in some ways for the better, in others for the worse, but modern science, in however many ways it differs from the science of earlier ages, could not have just come into existence on its own, without that earlier science.
There is another assumption behind the argument, and that is the assumption that the answer to the question of whether modernity was worth the cost paid for it is determined by what we wish and will. This is the second point – that this very assumption is itself the problem with modernity.
Think back to the origins of modernity. In the traditional understanding, good and evil, right and wrong, were not what man decided they were, they were what they were. Man’s responsibility was to seek and to serve the Good, rather than whatever he happened to desire. He was to use his will to rule over his own inner desires and was to submit his will in obedience to the Good.
The Modern Age was born out of rebellion against this understanding. Against the traditional understanding, modern man declared that the good was whatever he decided it was and that he had decided that the highest good was the freedom of his will from traditional constraints, and that his liberated will was best put to use in pursuing whatever he desired.
The reason this produced an explosion of science and technology is because the freedom man had declared for his own will translated into slavery for all the rest of creation. Man’s emancipated will was the will to dominate all he surveyed, and just as a country at war will conscript all of its resources into serving the war effort, so modern man mobilized all of his reason and knowledge towards achieving the desired human control over all of nature. This is the essence of modern science. (12)
When you organize all of your resources towards achieving your goals you can accomplish an awful lot. When man mobilized all of his intellectual resources to the end of bending and transforming the world around him to serve his will he accomplished the wonders of the modern world. Much of what he accomplished would be considered good even by the traditional understanding of that concept. Man’s will, emancipated from traditional moral constraints, was now enslaved to his own inner passions and appetites, (13) but not all human desires are bad. Man desired to prevent and reverse blindness and invented laser surgery as a means to achieving this desire. That this desire and its accomplishment are good by the traditional understanding is evident in the first words Jesus offered to the messenger of John the Baptist as evidence that He was the Messiah “the blind receive their sight”. (14)
The problem is not with the good things we have accomplished through modern science and technology. The problem is with what we have become through liberating our will and appetites from traditional constraints, bending and transforming creation to serve our will and appetites, and making even good and evil, right and wrong, into our servants, by declaring good to be what we decide it is rather than what it is.
To illustrate, consider a barren couple, who desire to have a child but have been unable to conceive. Their own parents are all eager to be grandparents, they can provide children with a good home, and are heartbroken over their inability to produce a child. The modern scientist comes along and tells them that through the miracle of the technology of in vitro fertilization, they will now be able to have a child. Undoubtedly, the desire is a good desire, and the end is a good end. To achieve that end hundreds of extra fertilized embryos have to be produced. Science has a use for those embryos, however. Research on embryonic stem cells can potentially help scientists develop cures for chronic conditions and perhaps even regenerate limbs. These too are good desires and good ends.
Now think about that for a second. To achieve the first good desire, the blessing of an infertile couple with a baby, we have to produce large numbers of human lives (15) knowing that they will never develop into mature, adult human beings. In other words, we have turned human life into a product to be manufactured, the manufacturing of which produces a surplus beyond what we can use. Since we have that surplus anyway, and can accomplish other good things by subjecting it to scientific research, we reason we should go ahead and do so, thus turning manufactured human lives into laboratory rats. Yet many in the modern world in which we live see no problem with science going ahead and achieving these good ends through these means. (16)
We cannot bend and transform nature and the world to serve our will without also bending and transforming ourselves in the process, and when we refuse to acknowledge the rule of good as it is over our own will, but insist upon making good be what we decide it to be and making our own will and desire the final judge over everything, we transform ourselves into something very ugly and inhuman indeed.
(1) Christopher Boesch and Hedwige Boesche. 1990. “Tool use and tool making in wild chimpanzees.” Folia Primatologica, 54:86-89.
(2) This is part of what French Calvinist Jacques Ellul called “the technological bluff” in his volume of that title, first published in French in 1988, the English translation of which by Geoffrey W. Bromiley was published by William B. Eerdmans of Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1990. In his foreword Ellul wrote “The bluff consists essentially of rearranging everything in terms of technical progress, which with prodigious diversification offers us in every direction such varied possibilities that we can imagine nothing else…And when I say bluff, it is because so many successes and exploits are ascribed to techniques,…because technique is regarde in advance as the only solution to collective problems…or individual problems…and because at the same time it is seen as the only chance for progress and development in any society.” (p. xvi)
(3) Ellul did not use the term this way. He used “technique” to refer to “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity” and “technologie” to refer to the systematic study of the same. His English translators do not always follow his usage. John Wilkinson’s translation of his 1954 La Technique, for example, was published in English by Alfred A. Knopf of New York in 1964, under the title The Technological Society. It is from the latter that the definition of technique is taken. Canadian philosopher George Grant, who was much influenced by this book, disagreed with Ellul’s usage, and made the case that technology was the best possible word to describe the phenomenon. Formed by the combination of the Greek words for art (in the sense of that which is made) and science (in the sense of that which is known), technology, Grant argued, denoted a combination and absolute co-penetration of making and knowing which was unique to modern times. Examples of this argument can be found in his 1975 lecture to the Royal Society of Canada “Knowing and Making”, published on pages 407-417 of The George Grant Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), compiled and edited by William Christian and Sheila Grant, in his Massey College lecture “The Computer Does Not Impose On Us the Ways It Should Be Used”, found on pages 418-434 of the same volume, and in “Thinking About Technology”, a re-worked version of the same lecture, published as the first essay in his Technology and Justice (Toronto: Anansi, 1986) on pages 11-34.
(4) Examples include Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1818) and Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Will to Power.
(5) The thought that such blessings would come with a price tag attached is foreign to modern thought, despite modern man’s resemblance to Oscar Wilde’s cynic, who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. It is well to keep in mind the Spanish proverb George Grant was fond of quoting “take what you want, said God, but pay for it.”
(6) The first volume of Der Untergang des Abendlandes, with the subtitle Gestalt und Wirklichkeit, was published in Munich by C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung in 1918. The second volume, subtitled Welthistorische Perspektiven, was published by the same company in 1922. The English translation by Charles Francis Atkinson, was published by Alfred A. Knopf of New York under the title The Decline of the West. The first volume of the translation, Form and Actuality, came out in 1926, and the second volume Perspectives of World-History in 1928.
(7) Nietzsche, in his first book The Birth of Tragedy (1872) characterized the two sides in the struggle between chaos and order, as Dionysian (after the god of wine and revelry) and Appollonian (after the god of light and beauty). The ancient Athenians, he believed, had created a balance between the two by imposing the Appollonian order of dramatic dialogue on the Dionysian music of the chorus in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, a balance that was promptly destroyed in the New Tragedy of Euripides and by the rationalism of Socrates.
(8) I say “agreed to pay” because Goethe altered the ending of the story. In the original legend, based loosely upon a sixteenth century alchemist who blew himself up, the story ends with Faust being torn to pieces by demons and his soul dragged down to hell. Goethe’s version ends with the redemption of Faust.
(9) Mark 8:36
(11) It is worth pointing out here, what George Grant noted about “values”, that they are the modern substitute for the Good. Whereas the Good was, values are chosen, created, and made. The concept is Nietzschean in origin, although, as Grant ironically observed, many who would hate to see themselves as followers of Nietzsche, have borrowed it. See Grant’s Time as History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), his essay “Nietzsche and the Ancients: Philosophy and Scholarship”, the fourth essay in Technology and Justice found on pages 79-95, and the excerpts from his 1964 talk “Value and Technology” found on pages 387-394 of The George Grant Reader.
(12) As George Grant put it “the modern unity of the sciences is realized around the ideal of mastery”, Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1969), p. 116.
(13) That allowing oneself to be led by one’s appetites enslaves rather than truly liberates, is where Athens and Jerusalem meet, having been taught by Plato and Aristotle in the former, and by Jesus Christ and St. Paul in the latter.
(14) Matthew 11:5
(15) When a human sperm fertilizes a human egg resulting in a zygote, the result is immediately both alive – growth through cell division and replication begins immediately – and human, possessing a full set of human chromosomes marking it as human and belonging to no other species. A human embryo is indisputably a human life.
(16) As the previous notes will indicate,my thinking on this subject has been heavily influenced by George Grant. His 1986 Technology and Justice, which begins with the essay “Thinking About Technology” ends with two essays co-written with his wife Sheila, “The Language of Euthanasia” and “Abortion and Rights”, addressing two ways in which human life is degraded in the modern technological society.