Monday, March 24, 2008

C.S. Lewis on Technology and Natural Law

"What we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument."--C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man

It's no secret that I love technology. I got my first computer back in University and I've hardly looked back since. Email is an indispensable tool. Without Facebook I would never be able to keep in touch with a lot of my friends. I love my ipod too! I wonder how I ever survived riding public transport without it.

Nevertheless, despite my abiding affection for the convenience of technology, I believe it raises serious concerns. I am not prepared to go as far as William Morris, who would have preferred to revert to as technology-free a world as possible. For one thing, even the stone-age utopia described in News from Nowhere includes technological innovations, however basic. Similarly, while I respect the Amish and way of life, I don't think it's possible to draw a line in the sand that will determine at which point technology becomes unacceptable (should we draw the line at electricity? Steam engines?). And I don't think that fleeing from the problem helps us address the root of the problem.

The problem with technology is, as Lewis points out in Abolition of Man, that “each new power won by man is a power over man as well.” For every benefit gained through new technologies, there is a price paid to those in power. For example, Facebook brings us closer to old friends, but this benefit often comes at the cost of our privacy (if you haven't heard of Beacon yet, give it a google--oh, wait a minute...that just feeds the system!). As Nicholas Carr has pointed out, the web is, at best, amoral. The reality of "man's power over man" in the world of technology is terrifyingly obvious. And short of homesteading in Alaska or Northern Canada (minus my blog, of course) it's impossible to escape. So what's a girl to do? Since I'm not about to give up my laptop, ipod or Facebook, I guess I'll have to think of another way to come to terms with my consumption of technology.

Back to C.S. Lewis. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis addresses the soul-sucking status of modern education. As Lewis wrote this series of lectures during World War Two, modern educators were busy trying training schoolchildren to see a world stripped of all the emotions and sentiments that might cloud their judgement--to a see a world beyond good and evil where costs and benefits were the ultimate measure of success. If we teach children moral relativity, we shouldn't be surprised when, Zuckerberg-like, they grow up to invent technologies that spy on us for their own financial gain. In this sense, I would have to pinpoint our liberal democratic educational system as the root of most of our problems as a society, including our runaway technologies. By positing self-interest as the highest good and permitting moral relativism, they promote dangerous narcissism.

What was Lewis' prescription for the self-interest that represents the malaise of modernity? The Tao, or Natural Law. The Tao is the law in our hearts. It is "the doctrine of objective value" "the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are" (Lewis). Although the notion of the Tao might seem a bit quaint to those of us reared in the school of scientific materialism, it has a lasting appeal that is difficult to escape.

For Lewis, knowledge of the good is the beginning of critical thinking. Before we can properly engage in the modern world, we need to know what is true, good, and beautiful and be able to recognize it when we see it.

Our society has exchanged the mysteries of creation (man’s humanity, in particular) for knowledge about their quantitative processes. This doesn't mean that we as a society need to reject innovations and attempt to return to a pre-modern way of life. It means that there is value in retaining moral absolutes. Moreover, it means that we as a society need to return to reverence for the value, not only of creation itself, but also of humanity itself. Technological innovations need to be evaluated in terms of their continuity with the law that is written on our hearts and be used in a way that does not violate that law.

1 comment:

Princess Skye said...

Thank you! I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Its something I think of often, and I'm reading Lewis' "The Allergory of Love" right now.