Religions of Technology

by WILLIAM O'NEILL

       David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology, the Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. 273 pages with notes and index. $26 (cloth).

Two seemingly incompatible enthusiasms characterize the world facing the millennium: infatuation with technology and a revival of fundamentalist faith. But historically the religious and the scientific or technical have been close together. Professor Noble explores a thousand years' fascination with technology and its predecessor concepts such as the "useful arts."

His history goes from Erigena's view of "mechanical arts" as a knowledge obscured by the Fall to Protestant activism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He examines atomic science, airplanes, rocketry, space flight, artificial intelligence, artificial life, and genetic engineering as "technologies of transcendence." Noble highlights religious references used by prominent scientists, their personal beliefs, church memberships, and almost any use of the term "God." The "ascent of the saints," as flyers in the early days and as astronauts in recent times, is exemplified in the religious devotion of the Wright brothers, of individual astronauts, of Wernher Von Braun, and in NASA's project Adam. Personal religious experiences or activities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) or A-Life scientists or human genome researchers, expressed convictions, or any tendency of theirs to use religious terms are included in these chapters.

Noble's admonition is that the history of the technological and the spiritual has not been focused upon the remedy of humankind's most widespread needs. Restoration of humans to their prelapsarian perfection was for the elite few. Women and most men were excluded. Seekers of otherworldly perfection were supported by privileged worldly positions. Nuclear engineers and scientists served the temporal powers through weaponry, and AI and A-Life have been supported enormously by the military. Genetic engineering has revealed aspirations for an Orwellian Society. "On a deeper cultural level these technologies have not met basic human needs because, at bottom, they have never really been about meeting them. They have been aimed rather at the loftier goal of transcending such mortal concerns altogether." Noble avers that the religion of technology rests on extravagant hopes and visions that technology can never fulfill. It does not focus on the good life that may be possible by the best applications of technology for people's needs. "The technological pursuit of salvation has become a threat to our survival."

In an appendix Noble tells us that the religion of technology masculinized the useful arts. Women have been creative and inventive throughout history, but we nevertheless know of few of them. Theology traditionally focused basically on males, and engineering has been male-centered. The areas of AI and A-Life are male domains primarily. The religion of technology has particularly failed to improve the status of women.

These elements, however, are really not presented thematically in the copious historical review. Except for his treatment of Bellamy, Noble does not explicitly develop to any great extent the point of his conclusion, which is thus a postscript. The points on women are developed only as an appendix. Further, the relationship between religion and technology may have become progressively less exclusive. In the last two centuries there are other elements to consider: atheism, materialism, and secularism. Technology arises also in non-Western religious environments. It is not a fundamentalist Christian thing, nor even a religious thing, nor a Western thing anymore. China, Russia, and others have become big technological players without this same element of religious transcendence as a central factor. Noble tells us that there are those for whom the religious impulse is unconscious and obscured by secularized vocabulary. But how does one know this? As for spiritual vocabulary, eloquence by prominent people does not necessarily identify the true driving forces behind the multitude of those contributing to breakthroughs and their subsequent development. Secularism has not totally replaced religion, but in large and significant sectors of society and the intellectual community it has.

There are some other cautions in reading this book. Some key figures such as astronauts are not necessarily space scientists nor creators of technology, although they are experts. Also, some connections seen in seminal thinkers may be rather a reach. Boole's binary system with "one" as the universal class is "possibly" a reflection of his Unitarianism, but also possibly just dictated by the requirements of the algebra. Thinking machines are not incorporeal nor unbodily, even though they are not fleshly. Also, the military support and origin of many crucial developments in AI need to be seen in terms of the coincidence of certain levels of advancing knowledge with a great war. Nuclear fission and understanding of the nuclear forces were not created by the military, even if their most dramatic initial technical achievements were. War came along when certain advances were, from causes not inherent to the war, within reach. AI may be heir to searches for the perfect pre-Babel Adamic language, but more mundane suggestions can also be advanced. The declaration of some researchers that Cyberspace will become luminous and take on the aspect of perfect paradise is as much a purple patch as an element of argument or analysis. Because some scientists involved in A-Life, genetic engineering, and the human genome project believe that they have found or proved the existence of God or of God's plan, this does not necessarily mean that they have. Neither does it mean that the shortcomings of such proofs may not be demonstrated nor that society is thus in danger for the determination of its direction in the coming age.

Professor Noble has, however, certainly provided a highly readable, fascinating, and heavily documented look at a number of trends in intellectual culture throughout the millennium which is now ending and the book will be highly instructive and thought-provoking for his readers.

WILLIAM O'NEILL teaches philosophy at Iona College.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 200, Vol. 50  Issue 3.