Paul Goodman and Humane Technology

This is a kind of thematic follow-up to my previous post.

A few weeks ago Nick Carr posted a quotation from this 1969 article by Paul Goodman: “Can Technology Be Humane?” I had never heard of it, but it’s quite fascinating. Here’s an interesting excerpt:

For three hundred years, science and scientific technology had an unblemished and justified reputation as a wonderful adventure, pouring out practical benefits, and liberating the spirit from the errors of superstition and traditional faith. During this century they have finally been the only generally credited system of explanation and problem-solving. Yet in our generation they have come to seem to many, and to very many of the best of the young, as essentially inhuman, abstract, regimenting, hand-in-glove with Power, and even diabolical. Young people say that science is anti-life, it is a Calvinist obsession, it has been a weapon of white Europe to subjugate colored races, and manifestly—in view of recent scientific technology—people who think that way become insane. With science, the other professions are discredited; and the academic “disciplines” are discredited.

The immediate reasons for this shattering reversal of values are fairly obvious. Hitler’s ovens and his other experiments in eugenics, the first atom bombs and their frenzied subsequent developments, the deterioration of the physical environment and the destruction of the biosphere, the catastrophes impending over the cities because of technological failures and psychological stress, the prospect of a brainwashed and drugged 1984. Innovations yield diminishing returns in enhancing life. And instead of rejoicing, there is now widespread conviction that beautiful advances in genetics, surgery, computers, rocketry, or atomic energy will surely only increase human woe.

Goodman’s proposal for remedying this new mistrust and hatred of technology begins thus: “Whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science,” and requires the virtue of prudence. Since “in spite of the fantasies of hippies, we are certainly going to continue to live in a technological world,” this redefinition of technology — or recollection of it to its proper place — is a social necessity. Goodman spells out some details:

  • “Prudence is foresight, caution, utility. Thus it is up to the technologists, not to regulatory agencies of the government, to provide for safety and to think about remote effects.”
  • “The recent history of technology has consisted largely of a desperate effort to remedy situations caused by previous over-application of technology.”
  • “Currently, perhaps the chief moral criterion of a philosophic technology is modesty, having a sense of the whole and not obtruding more than a particular function warrants.”
  • “Since we are technologically overcommitted, a good general maxim in advanced countries at present is to innovate in order to simplify the technical system, but otherwise to innovate as sparingly as possible.”
  • “A complicated system works most efficiently if its parts readjust themselves decentrally, with a minimum of central intervention or control, except in case of breakdown.”
  • “But with organisms too, this has long been the bias of psychosomatic medicine, the Wisdom of the Body, as Cannon called it. To cite a classical experiment of Ralph Hefferline of Columbia: a subject is wired to suffer an annoying regular buzz, which can be delayed and finally eliminated if he makes a precise but unlikely gesture, say by twisting his ankle in a certain way; then it is found that he adjusts quicker if he is not told the method and it is left to his spontaneous twitching than if he is told and tries deliberately to help himself. He adjusts better without conscious control, his own or the experimenter’s.”
  • “My bias is also pluralistic. Instead of the few national goals of a few decision-makers, I propose that there are many goods of many activities of life, and many professions and other interest groups each with its own criteria and goals that must be taken into account. A society that distributes power widely is superficially conflictful but fundamentally stable.”
  • “The interlocking of technologies and all other institutions makes it almost impossible to reform policy in any part; yet this very interlocking that renders people powerless, including the decision-makers, creates a remarkable resonance and chain-reaction if any determined group, or even determined individual, exerts force. In the face of overwhelmingly collective operations like the space exploration, the average man must feel that local or grassroots efforts are worthless, there is no science but Big Science, and no administration but the State. And yet there is a powerful surge of localism, populism, and community action, as if people were determined to be free even if it makes no sense. A mighty empire is stood off by a band of peasants, and neither can win — this is even more remarkable than if David beats Goliath; it means that neither principle is historically adequate. In my opinion, these dilemmas and impasses show that we are on the eve of a transformation of conscience.”

If only that last sentence had come true. I hope to reflect further on this article in later posts.

Christian humanism and the Twitter tsunamis

Trigger warning: specifically Christian reflections ahead. 

The reason I want to say something about the two recent Twitter tsunamis is that they seem to have some significant, but little-noted, elements in common.

I’m going to start with something that I’ve hesitated whether to say, but here goes: I think my lack of enthusiasm for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay on reparations is largely a function of, ahem, age. The people in my Twitter feed who were most enthusiastic about Coates’s essay — and the enthusiasm got pretty extreme — tended to be much younger than I am, which is to say, tended to be people who don’t remember the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath. Or, to put it yet another and more precisely relevant way, people who don’t remember when a regular topic of American journalism was the crushing poverty imposed on black Americans by a history of pervasive racism.

Conversely, I spent much of my adolescence and early adulthood trying to understand what was going on in my home state (Alabama) and home town (Birmingham) by reading Marshall Frady and Howell Raines and, a little later, Stanley Crouch and Brent Staples, and above all — far above all — James Baldwin, whose “A Stranger in the Village” and The Fire Next Time tore holes in my mental and emotional world. There’s nothing in Coates’s essay that, in my view, wasn’t done far earlier and far better by these writers.

Which doesn’t mean, I’ve come to see, that anyone who loved Coates’s essay was wrong to do so. It seemed like old news to me, but that’s because I’m old. Samuel Johnson said that people need to be reminded far more often than they need to be instructed, and it is perhaps time for a widely-read reminder of the ongoing and grievous consequences of racism in America.

But I do think the strong response to Coates’s essay indicates that the American left has to a considerable extent lost the thread when it comes to race and poverty. (I do not mention the American right in this context because my fellow conservatives have been lastingly and culpably blind to the ongoing cruelty of racism, and have often thoughtlessly participated in that cruelty.) For that left, perhaps Coates’s essay can be a salutary reminder that there are millions of people in America whose problems are far worse than websites’ or public restrooms’ failures to recognize their preferred gender identity — which is the sort of thing I’m more likely to see blog posts and tweets about these days.

Which leads me to the second tsumani, the response to the shootings in Santa Barbara. I was interested in how this extremely rare event — of a kind that’s probably not getting more common — led to the more useful and meaningful discussion of common dangers for women, as exemplified by the #YesAllWomen hashtag. Even though I think “hashtag activism” is an absurd parody of the real thing, I thought the rise of that particular hashtag marked a welcome shift from the internet’s typical hyperattentiveness to the Big Rare Event towards the genuine problems of everyday life.

But even as some good things were happening, I also saw the all-too-typical — in social media and in life more generally — lining up into familiar camps. It’s as true as ever that These Tragic Events Only Prove My Politics — even though that site hasn’t been updated in a long time — so I was treated to a whole bunch of tweets casually affirming that mass murder is the natural and inevitable result of “heteronormativity” and “traditional masculinity.” And I saw far more comments from people attacking the #YesAllWomen hashtag as “typical feminist BS” and … well, and a lot worse.

No surprises there. But I was both somewhat surprised and deeply disappointed to see how many of the men attacking users of the #YesAllWomen hashtag — users that in every single case I saw the attackers were not following, which means that they were going out of their way to look for women who were hurt and upset by the shootings so they could belittle those concerns — used their Twitter bios to identify themselves as Christians. (One of the most self-righteously sneering guys I saw has a bio saying he wants to “code like Jesus.”)

And if you don’t see the problem with that, I would suggest that you read some of the “one another” verses in the Bible, like Romans 12:16: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” Or this passage from Ephesians 4: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” And if you’re a Christian and think those rules only apply to your interactions with your fellow Christians, well, maybe there’s something in the Bible about how you should treat your enemies. As Russell Moore has just written, “Rage itself is no sign of authority, prophetic or otherwise.”

There are women all over the world who live in daily fear of verbal harassment at best, and often much, much worse. They are our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our wives — or just our friends. How can we fail to be compassionate towards them, or to sympathize with their fear and hurt? How can we see their fear as a cause for our self-righteous self-defense? To think of some supposed insult to our dignity in such circumstances seems to me to drift very far indeed from the spirit, as well as the commandments, of Christ.

I began this post by saying that the two recent tsunamis have something in common, and this, I think, is it: hurt and anger at the failure of powerful human beings to treat other and less powerful people as fully human. This has been a theme in my writing for a long time, but is the heart and soul of my history of the doctrine of original sin, which I’m going to quote now. This is a passage about the revulsion towards black people the great nineteenth-century Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz felt when he came to America for the first time:

Agassiz’s reaction to the black servants at his Philadelphia hotel provides us the opportunity to discuss an issue which has been floating just beneath the surface of this narrative for a long time. One of the arguments that I have been keen to make throughout this book is that a belief in original sin serves as a kind of binding agent, a mark of “the confraternity of the human type,” an enlistment of us all in what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called the “universal democracy of sinners.” But why should original sin alone, among core Christian doctrines, have the power to do that? What about that other powerful idea in Genesis, that we are all made in the image of God? Doesn’t that serve equally well, or even better, to bind us as members of a single family?

The answer is that it should do so, but usually does not. Working against the force of that doctrine is the force of familiarity, of prevalent cultural norms of behavior and even appearance. A genuine commitment to the belief the we are all created equally in the image of God requires a certain imagination — imagination which Agassiz, try as he might, could not summon: “it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us.” Instinctive revulsion against the alien will trump doctrinal commitments almost every time. Black people did not feel human to him, and this feeling he had no power to resist; eventually (as we shall see) his scientific writings fell into line with his feelings.

By contrast, the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time, of being divided against ourselves, falling short of the mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better. It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and think that, though he is not all he might be, neither am I. It is true that not everyone can do this: the Duchess of Buckingham couldn’t. (“It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.”) But in general it is easier for most of us to condescend, in the etymological sense of the word — to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others — than to lift up people whom our culturally-formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves. If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation. That the doctrine of a common creation in the image of God doesn’t do more to help build human community and fellow-feeling could be read as yet more evidence for the reality of original sin.

So you can see that my own response to the problems I’ve been seeing discussed on Twitter is a Christian one, more specifically one grounded in a theological anthropology that sees all of us as creatures made in the image of God who have (again, all of us) defaced that image. And it is in the recognition of our shared humanity — both in its glories and its failings but often starting with its failings — that we build our case against abuse and exploitation.

But to have a politics grounded in this Christian humanism is also to be at odds with most of the rhetoric I see on Twitter about the recent controversies. I mentioned earlier the “lining up into familiar camps,” and those camps are always exclusive and oppositional. The message of identity politics, as practiced in America anyway, is not only that “my experience is unlike yours” — which is often true — but “my experience can never be like yours, between us there will always be a great gulf fixed” — which is a tragic mistake. That way of thinking leads to absurdities like the claim that men like Elliot Rodger are the victims of feminism, and, from other camps, the complete failure to acknowledge that five of the seven people Rodger killed were men. It also leads, I think, and here I want to tread softly, that it’s going to be relatively simple to figure out who should receive reparations and who should pay them.

It’s not wrong to have camps, to belong to certain groups, but it’s disastrous to be unable to see beyond them, and impossible to build healthy communities if we can’t see ourselves as belonging to one another.

So why does identity politics so frequently, and so completely, trump a belief in our shared humanity? I’m not sure, but the book I’m currently writing takes up this question. It deals with a group of Christian intellectuals who suspect, as many others in the middle of the twentieth century also suspected, that democracy is not philosophically self-sustaining — that it needs some deeper moral or metaphysical commitments to make it plausible. And for T. S. Eliot and Jacques Maritain and Henri de Lubac and Simone Weil and C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden, only the Christian account of “the confraternity of the human type” was sufficiently strong to bind us together. Otherwise, why should I treat someone as equal to me simply because he or she belongs to the same species?

Auden’s two cheers for democracy

The major project I am currently working on concerns Christian humanism in a time to total war — in particular, in World War II. In the midst of a an unprecedentedly vast war, a number of prominent and highly accomplished intellectuals saw the need for a renewal of a rich and subtle humanism — which is surprising in itself, it seems to me — and for many of them that humanism needed to be grounded in a doctrinally robust Christianity. This seemed odd enough to me that I thought it needed to be accounted for. Thus this book.

One of the major figure in the story I’ll tell is W. H. Auden, and I’ll give significant attention to a little-known lecture he gave at Swarthmore College, where he taught during much of the war. Swarthmore has, to my great pleasure, made available online its collection of Auden memorabilia — including the full typescript of the lecture, entitled “Vocation and Society”. (How cool is that?)

In the book I’ll explore this lecture at some length, but right now I’ll just say something about the end of his talk, where he introduces an interesting and important question: Is democracy after all sustainable? Or, to put the question more precisely, Is it self-sustaining? Auden echoes a famous essay by E. M. Forster in offering “Two Cheers for Democracy,” but he withholds the third cheer for rather different reasons than the atheist Forster had. “Two cheers for Democracy,” says Auden: “one because it admits vocation, and two because it permits contrition. Two cheers are quite enough. There is no occasion to give three. Only Agape, the Beloved Republic, deserves that.” What he would later call “our dear old bag of a democracy” is sustained, not by itself, but by belief in something deeper and greater than itself. So Auden concludes his talk not with those cheers, but with the reading of a few lines of a very recent poem.

Just four months earlier T. S. Eliot had published “Little Gidding,” the last of his Four Quartets, and Auden finished his talk by reading the poem’s concluding lines:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

Auden’s vision, then, is of a vocation-based education sustained by a democratic polity, and a democratic polity sustained by Christian faith. This vision stood against the commanding power of the nation-state, against pragmatism, against modern technocratic canons of efficiency.

Just after the war Auden visited Harvard to read a poem to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. One of the dominant figures of American culture at that time was James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s president, who, captured by the techno-utopian mood of the war years, was striving to modernize the university and transform it into a research powerhouse focused on science and technology. In so doing he emphasized the humanities, especially the classics, far less than Harvard had done through much of its history. Auden told Alan Ansen, “When I was delivering my Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge, I met Conant for about five minutes. ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself. And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”

Humanist confused

Late last year, Fred Baumann offered in the pages of The New Atlantis a depiction of the complicated relationship between humanism and transhumanism. It is a wonderful essay, and we will have more to say about it here on Futurisms before too long. Meanwhile, though, I noticed that the new issue of The Humanist magazine has a book review that touches on transhumanism, and I thought it worth a brief comment here.For those who don’t know, The Humanist is a publication of the American Humanist Association, a group with stridently anti-religious views. The twentieth-century humanist movement, of which the American Humanist Association is a part, considers itself a true heir to the Enlightenment. You can see this all over the group’s literature, which lauds science as “the best method for determining” knowledge of the world and “for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies.” Science can also “inform” our “ethical values.”I wonder if contemporary humanists have given much thought to the tensions between science and some of the other things they embrace. For example, I wonder what today’s vocally atheistic humanists would make of Joel Garreau’s article “Environmentalism as Religion.” And I wonder what they would have to say about the profoundly anti-human eugenics movement, which prided itself on its scientific rationalism but would seem to offer us a terrible warning about how scientistic ideology can trample on the “inherent worth and dignity” of human beings. (An old version of the humanist manifesto, dating back to 1973, did concede that “science has sometimes brought evil as well as good” — but the next version of the manifesto cut that bit.)A thoughtful humanist truly concerned with understanding and protecting human dignity might also want to ask some probing questions of today’s transhumanists. Is transhumanism the ultimate expression of humanism, or is it a kind of rejection of humanism? As far as I can tell, the only time anyone critically challenged transhumanism in the pages of The Humanist magazine was in a letter to the editor in 2004, and even that letter only barely touched on transhumanism.Which brings us to the book review in the new issue of The Humanist. Written by Jende Andrew Huang, it’s a review of The Techno-Human Condition, the new book by Arizona State professors Dan Sarewitz and Brad Allenby. Huang contends that the authors misunderstand transhumanism, but he doesn’t really explain what they get wrong — except to say that some of the “conversations [about the unintended consequences of human enhancement] that the authors are calling for are already happening in transhumanist circles.”Then, thinking that he is going in for the kill, Huang offers this:

Though it would almost be petty to harp on a single citation as an example of the authors’ thought processes, I was surprised to see them reference The Religion of Technology by David Noebel. Noebel is the founder of Summit Ministries, which, among other things, offers two-week summer sessions for Christian college students to teach them about five pernicious worldviews: Islam, secular humanism, Marxism, New Age, and postmodernism. As Noebel teaches it, the Christian worldview has fueled every great scientific advance and leap of knowledge in history, until Charles Darwin wrote On the Origins of Species in 1859, and scientists turned away from God toward both evolution and morality-free atheism, a shift that has since allowed society to run amok. It would be an understatement to say that most of what he writes cannot be assumed as objective or grounded in historical fact. Referencing Noebel as a reliable source on the thoughts and beliefs of seventeenth-century scientists is problematic, to say the least (though I suppose if we removed “applied reason” from the conversation, then we wouldn’t need to worry about letting facts get in the way of things).

Unfortunately for Huang, the entire premise of this paragraph is wrong. The book The Religion of Technology was written not by David A. Noebel, the minister Huang decries, but by the late David F. Noble, the Canadian historian and critic of technology. Huang thinks he has found a glaring problem with Sarewitz and Allenby’s approach to transhumanism, but the problem here is Huang’s own — and it’s a lapse that a few seconds of googling could have obviated.At any rate, we would be glad to hear if there are folks in the contemporary humanism movement who have doubts about the wisdom of transhumanism. Or does their faith (so to speak) in science run so deep that they are disinclined to question any project that seems as squarely scientific as the transhumanist project does?UPDATE — In case you were wondering whether the authors may have misspelled Noble’s name and thereby unintentionally misled Huang, here is a scanned in version of the paragraph on page 18 (at least in the advance galleys that I own) of Sarewitz and Allenby’s book:



UPDATE II — Huang has e-mailed us the following reply to this post:

Thanks for pointing out my mistake! It’s especially embarrassing because I know “Doc” David A. Noebel, by virtue of having take one of his summer sessions at Summit Ministries when I was in college (you can read about my impressions here.)My time at Summit is one reason I highlighted the citation of what I thought was Doc Noebel’s book. I had done a quick web search and thought I’d “confirmed” that it was the Noebel from Summit. Clearly, I was mistaken. However, if you omit that paragraph, the rest of the review still stands. My comments regarding Doc Noebel are hardly the crux of my argument that you wish it to be. That paragraph was more like icing on an already delicious cake.I’m glad you’re reading (and hopefully enjoying) The Humanist magazine. After seeing your commentary about humanism, I would implore you to read the magazine with more of an open mind. Your characterization of humanism hardly befits the serious discussion I would assume your journal is trying to have about these complex issues. It’s unlikely you’d find many humanists willing to engage in serious dialogue with you about these topics, when you’re still questioning what humanists think about eugenics.

Clearly, I disagree with Mr. Huang about his review; I think that it did not seriously engage with Sarewitz and Allenby’s book, and that it did little to explain what they got wrong on transhumanism — but I will leave that to readers of the book, of Huang’s review, and of my post to judge.However, I would invite Huang, or any readers who consider themselves part of the humanist movement, to elaborate on the point Huang makes in his last sentence. What do humanists think about eugenics? I did a little googling before writing this post, focusing especially on the website of The Humanist and the American Humanist Association, and all I found was a glancing reference to eugenics as a “downside[] and absurd offshoot[]” of freethinking, and a blog post that in passing called eugenics “infamous.” I am happy to assume that humanists abhor eugenics, and I am happy to assume that they really care about protecting human dignity (a notoriously difficult term to understand and define). I just want to understand how they reconcile their appreciation of science as a source of knowledge and even ethical insight with the fact that it gave rise to the eugenics movement. The eugenics movement considered itself impeccably scientific, and its proponents used the latest scientific knowledge to justify their preferred policies. If there are books, essays, or blog posts by humanists that explain how they think through this problem, I would be glad to read and link to them.