Jan 2001

Thoughts on
Western technological Enlightenment

Menno Rubingh, (c) 2001
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[ This text is under construction -- below are some fragments of the final text ]

In this text, I mean with the term ``technological enlightenment'' the idea that it is possible to solve every problem by technological means, where this technology is designed by science. This idea frequently creates in the people who believe in it a positivistic and optimistic, and sometimes even somewhat idealistic world view. Historically, technological enlightenment may be said to have originated in the European renaissance (ca. 1300 - 1600 AD) at the end of the middle ages, but throughout classical European culture, starting from the ancient Greeks, a clear strain of thought can be discerned focussing on rational thought and on utilizing rational thought to tackle practical real-world problems.

Technological enlightenment is therefore in no way a new recent fad.   On the contrary, it is deeply embedded in Western (European/US) culture.   The marked dominating and imperialistic expansion of Europeans into the world from the 16th century onwards has been enabled by technological superiority resulting from the ``technological spinoff products'' of rationalistic technological-enlightenment thinking, coupled with a kind of ``conquerer'' mentality mixed with a sort of feeling of ``moral'' superiority resulting from knowing that one can overcome any problem and that therefore there are no insuperable boundaries to expansion.   However, this outlook towards the world of expansion based on technological prowess and based on a belief that with rational thinking one can tackle every problem, evidently already was a basic part of the mode of thinking of the ``ruling classes'' in the Roman Empire.   The classical Romans were maybe not scientists, and the world view of hugely the biggest portion of people in classical Rome was quite superstitious -- but nevertheless this mental mode of operation of rationally and practically engineering, and then practically using, technology and societal structures (which with the classical Romans of course was applied most prominently to the activities of war and politics), was a key factor responsible for the success of the Roman Empire.

Neither is technological enlightenment an obsolete 18th century concept.

[ ... ]

As soon as ``enlightenment'' becomes an idealistic thing, it is, in my opinion, doomed.   Technological enlightenment in my opinion is not an idealistic thing, instead it is purely and simply down-to-earth practical.   The 18th century type of ``idealistic'' Enlightenment was an interesting cultural phenomenon, but by stressing the idealistic sides of it, such as e.g. the idealism that scientific inquiry should benefit all mankind, 18th century idealistic Enlightenment went beyond the purely minimalistically practical.   And anything that goes beyond the purely minimalistically practical immediately thereby, in a sense, is idealistically religious.

Is it possible to talk about a type of technological enlightenment that is not idealistic ?   Yes, I think it is.   I think that the concept of ``non-idealistic'' technological enlightenment makes sense -- with this I mean the idea that rational thought and technology are useful methodologies to (help) solve problems.   This type of non-ideological technological enlightenment is a purely neutral tool, as neutral and down-to-earth and straightforward as a simple tool like a hammer.   People when using a hammer generally don't have to have ideological ideas in their minds about big resounding humanistic idealistic goals attached to the tool itself.   The hammer doesn't presuppose any ideological claims or goals -- the hammer simply is there to be used by anyone as he thinks he can use it to his best advantage.   It's the same with non-idealistic technological enlightenment : it simply is the idea of using rationally devised technology to solve a problem.   Non-idealistic technological enlightenment doesn't say for example that people should solve all problems by rationally devised technology; like the hammer, it only constututes a tool that every person can use (or not use) as he likes.

Also like the hammer, there are no idealistic (humanistic or other) goals attached to non-idealistic technological enlightenment : any entity or group could use the method/tool for any purpose it likes.   Survival of the tool is pretty much guaranteed if the tool is useful.   Unlike 18th century idealistic Enlightenment and some newer types of idealistic technological Enlightenment, in all of which there is some amount of religious fervour to preserve and propagate the ideological system (the ``meme'') even with its non-practical and purely idealistic elements, non-idealistic technological enlightenment therefore doesn't need to ``fight'' in that way for preservation or propagation of a ``religion'' or a ``culture'' attached to it.   In fact, non-idealistic technological enlightenment would make a fool of itself if it did such a thing like trying to propagate itself via ideological propaganda by priests or other propagandists.   The idea of non-idealistic technological enlightenment propagates merely and only because people find it selfishly useful for themselves or their group to make practical use, for down-to-earth and everyday-life problems, of this idea.

On the other hand, the idea of ``technological enlightenment'' seems to irk quite a lot of people, who label it with words like ``Frankenscience''.   [ ... ]

``Transhumanism'' is one of the newer ``movements'' propounding technological enlightenment ideas.   I find Transhumanism very interesting, and many of the topics it addresses appear at least worth thinking about, but find them nevertheless too idealistic.   By becoming too idealistic, Transhumanism alas becomes close to degrading itself into a mere cult.   The worst feature of Transhumanism is a belief in ``the Singularity'', an apocalyptic event of human culture going through a kind of technological sound barrier, after which, it is believed, everything will be ideal and every person (or life form) will have all its wishes magically fulfilled.   Nevertheless, Transhumanism seems to be a ``movement'' that does very much have the intention of keeping itself open to interaction with the normal scientific world, and hugely most Transhumanists in my opinion quite wish to maximize an open and mutually beneficial interchange of ideas between Transhumanism and ``normal'' science.   Transhumanism especially does not regard itself as a mode of thinking outside of ``normal'' science : they feel instead that they are in the middle of ``normal'' science.  

Here are some links to websites on ``Transhumanism'':

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