Philosophy of Technology
January 20, 1998
Perhaps the most crucial and elementary aspect of the philosophy of technology is the definition of technology itself. One of the most influential philosophers in this area is Mario Bunge. Bunge’s view of technology with its many branches (material, social, conceptual and general) is, as Carl Mitcham states, “perhaps the most comprehensive contemporary vision of engineering philosophy of technology.” (1). I will summarize some of Mario Bunge’s claims about technology as fundamentally distinct and different from science.
Before presenting Bunge’s account, I shall refer to three other authors, Feibleman, Jarvie, and Skolimowski in order to present some alternative views and influences on this field that is still in development: the philosophy of technology. Bunge’s philosophy of technology fits nicely with his philosophy of science and his ethical analysis of technology. For Bunge, pure science is good while technology can be evil and must be controlled. In the second part of the essay, I shall discuss some ethical considerations and critiques of technology. This paper is an epistemological inquiry, followed by an ethical analysis of technology.
K. Feibleman in, “Pure Science, Applied Science, and Technology: An Attempt at Definitions” argues that there is a fundamental difference between science, applied science and technology. This difference, according to Feibleman, is to be understood in terms of aims and ends pursued. Pure science is synonymous with “basic research” and it includes “a method of investigating nature by the experimental method in an attempt to satisfy the need to know.” (2). In order for something to be considered pure science, according to Feibleman, the aim of the research is strictly curiosity. Feibleman holds that applied science, is “the use of pure science for some practical human purpose” (3), it is concerned with “discovering applications of pure theory.” (4)
In other words, pure science aims at knowledge and is concerned with theoretical constructs ordered towards knowing, while applied science aims at practice and is concerned with theoretical constructs ordered towards practice. Technology, according to Feibleman, is different from applied science in that it is “a little nearer to practice”(5). While both employ experiments, applied science does so guided by hypothesis that are deductions from pure theory while technology employs a method of trial and error and “skilled approaches derived from concrete experience”(6). For Feibleman technology is synonymous with skill and its application in an activity that immediately produces artifacts.
Feibleman’s vision of technology as skill might seem intuitively correct at first glance, but upon reflection it becomes apparent that technological knowledge has to be accounted for in a more comprehensive way. However, his definitions of pure science, applied science, and technology serve as a good starting point in understanding the problem. I believe that Feibleman was right in looking at the aims and goals of activities, aside from their method, in order to distinguish between science and applied science. However, Feibleman’s definition of technology as skill and the production of artifacts is too constraining. What about technological knowledge and its relation to other forms of knowledge?
Epistemology is the study of the structure, conditions and validity of human knowledge. Skolimowski’s paper, “The Structure of Thinking in Technology”, offers a slightly different picture of the epistemological status of technological knowledge. Most authors agree that scientific knowledge tells us of reality through the formulation of laws of nature. The problematic question is: what is the nature of technological knowledge and activity and what is its relation to scientific knowledge. This is a question that Skolimowski addresses in his article; does technology have its own structure, aims and methods distinct from science? His answer is ‘yes.’
Science and technology differ, for Skolimowski, in that science “investigates the reality that is given”, whereas technology “creates reality according to a design”(8). Skolimowski’s definition of science as well as technology is based on their respective aims: which in both cases is progress. However, this progress is fundamentally different in the two cases, “science aims at enlarging our knowledge through devising better and better theories; technology aims at creating new artifacts through devising means of increasing effectiveness.” (9). Thus, Skolimowski stresses that both the means and the ends of science and technology differ.
Skolimowski investigates the relationship of technology
to science. He argues that technology is not science and that it is
distinct from applied science. The difference between science and
technology, according to Skolimowski is best grasped by focusing on the
idea of technological progress and the ways in which it is different from
scientific progress. He is correct in stressing that “without the
comprehension of technological progress, there is no comprehension of
technology and there is no sound philosophy of technology.” (10)
Skolimowski stresses that technological progress has its own autonomy from
science. Even though it may seem that technological progress was made
possible by scientific discoveries and advancement in chemistry or physics
- it is a mistake to overlook the fact that the problem was originally
technical and not cognitive. He characterizes technological progress as
“With an eye to solving a technical problem, we undertake inquiries into what is called pure science. Our procedures are extremely selective. Out of infinitely many possible channels of research only very few are chosen. Problems thus are investigated not with an eye to increasing knowledge but with an eye to a solution of a technical problem. If it were not for the sake of solving some specific technological problems, many properties of physical bodies never would have been examined, and many theories incorporated afterward into the body of pure science never would have been formulated.” (11)
He gives examples:
“In developing transistors many properties and laws governing the behavior of semiconductors have been formulated which might never have been formulated otherwise. To take another example, the problem of metal fatigue and many other phenomena concerning the behavior of solids in space might never have been investigated, and theories resulting from them might never have been established if it were not for the sake of constructing supersonic planes and intercontinental rockets. To mention finally atomic physics, it was in the Manhattan Project where plutonium, an element not found in nature, had to be developed in the process of producing the atom bomb.” (12)
In my opinion, what is correct in Skolimowski’s analysis is his insistence on efficiency as the aim of technology. It is true that technology is different in aims to science, and technological research is all too often a scientific endeavor. His description of modern research seems to suggest that in the process of doing technological research, the researcher does pure science. In fact, Skolimowski’s distinction between science and technology is based on their respective aims. In the aims of technological progress we sometimes undertake pure science as a means, while the difference between science and technology remains their respective aims.
I.C. Jarvie’s “The Social Character of Technological Problems: Comments on Skolimowski’s Paper”, and “Technology and the Structure of Knowledge” move along a similar path to Skolimowski through focus on the idea of technological progress. Jarvie, however, does not think that efficiency is the underlying aim of all technology and technological progress. Technological progress and its artifacts are determined, for Jarvie, by historically defined problems: different societies have different technological problems and different solutions to those problems.
Jarvie, similarly to Feibleman, identifies technology with practical activity with the goal of a solution to some specific technological problem. The reason why efficiency in itself is not enough to explain technological progress is because too much depends on the context of the specific problem. Jarvie stresses the influence of the “sociological background”(13) of technology. The American automobile maker, for example, could make cars that are much more efficient - but they choose not to because of social considerations. Things like worker or consumer satisfaction, aesthetic attraction and social cost all are all a part of technological progress and influence technology in various ways depending on the specific context. In order to understand technology, we cannot ignore these socio-historical aspects and must consider each technological advancement and artifact separately.
Jarvie defends technological knowledge as a legitimate, and in a sense, primary source of truth. Implicit in distinguishing between science and technology for many philosophers ever since antiquity, is the distinction between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’. Jarvie criticizes this conceptualization of the difference between theoretical and practical knowledge along with the notion that ‘knowing how’ is dependent on ‘knowing that’. Although Jarvie agrees that truth is not the same as effectiveness, and effectiveness seems to be the goal of technology: “knowledge of effectiveness is knowledge of truth too, even if it is on a different logical level. It is, so to speak, true knowledge of what is effective” (14) Jarvie argues that technological knowledge is “part and parcel of the whole truth” in that it tells us about what works as it does.
Jarvie, writing from an anthro-sociological perspective, wants to understand technology as a part of our efforts to increase our influence over our environment. He attempts to broaden the scope of what we normally consider to be practical knowledge to include all knowledge. Jarvie concludes that “technology is coterminous with our attempts to come to terms with our world; that is, our culture and our society; and as such, it contains within it both pure tools and all knowledge.” (15). He suggests that scientific research, as well as all intellectual endeavors is a result of our attempts to cope with our environment. We learn about our environment in order to change it to suit our needs and wants and ensure our continual survival - all of this is in a sense ‘technological.’
All of Jarvie, Skolimowski and Feibleman stress the importance of developing a philosophy of technology that is somehow distinct from a philosophy of science and not just a component of the latter. Mario Bunge’s philosophy of technology, on the other hand, is analyzed through, and is a part of, his philosophy of science. Bunge argues that technology, when properly understood, is coterminous with applied science. Bunge’s philosophy of technology allows for technological knowledge that consists of theories, grounded rules and data. Technology is the application of the theories and methods of science to practical action; it is concerned with technological theories (i.e., scientific theories of action.)
Technological theories are of two different kinds: substantive and operative. Substantive theories are straightforward applications of pre-existing scientific theories. A theory is substantive when and because “it provides knowledge regarding the objects of action - for example, machines.” (16). The example of a substantive theory that Bunge offers is a theory of flight, which is “essentially an application of fluid dynamics.” (17). A scientific theory always precedes a substantive technological theory. Some other examples of substantive theories are: the application of the theory of gravity to the design of generators of antigravity fields, the application of psychology to industry, or the application of paleontology by the oil industry.
The other kind of technological theory is operative, and “it is concerned with action itself.” (18) A theory which concerns the optimization of decisions leading to the distribution of aircraft over a specified territory is an example of an operative theory; decision, game theory and operations research are some other examples. Operative technological theories are “from the start concerned with the operations of men and man-machine complexes in nearly real situations” (19) and these theories stem directly from applied research and often make no use of substantive theories at all. These theories apply the methods of science, but are “technological in aim, which is practical rather than cognitive, but apart from this they do not differ markedly from the theories of science.” (20)
Bunge’s account of technological progress is somewhat different from the previous authors that I looked at. Bunge skillfully relates science and technology. Technology develops as we replace pre-scientific rules (“rules of thumb”) on which various crafts are based with grounded rules (a rule establishes stable norms of successful human behavior.) Grounded rules are rules that have been accounted for in terms of scientific laws - an explanation has been provided as to why something happens as it does with reference to a scientific law (a law is an objective pattern). A grounded rule is one whose effectiveness has been explained through science and the laws of nature.
The difference between purely scientific theories and applied technological theories lies in the distinction between a rule and a law, according to Bunge. A rule is a normative prescription for some action in order to achieve some predetermined goal. Law statements, on the other hand, are descriptive interpretations of reality (the whole of it) that say “what the shape of possible events is” (21). Scientific theories are concerned with true laws and the increase of our body of knowledge. Modern technology, with its practical aims, is concerned with developing a system of grounded rules that will enable the technologist to influence events in some favorably efficient way.
Let me take an example that is based an article published in Biochemistry in 1992, Structural Elements of Human Parathyroid Hormone and their Possible Relation to Biological Activities”(22). This article documents a discovery of a helix as a part of the structural shape of a naturally occurring parathyroid hormone and that it is this part of the hormone that is instrumental in its interaction with its receptor through which begins the biological activity of the hormone. This research fits into Skolimowski’s definition of pure science as “investigation of the reality that is given”, done with a long-term technological goal.
The research on this particular hormone was carried out because it was known that it is responsible for the distribution of calcium in the human organism, and its lack or destruction causes osteoporosis. Osteoporosis was the reason why the National Research Council of Canada chose to study the hormone. Therefore, the aim of the work was to learn more about osteoporosis, which is a practical and naturally occurring problem in the world. Out of the infinitely many things to learn about, we choose to learn, through science, about things that we think are relevant. Relevance in this case refers to practical utility and the solution to a problem. The long-term aim, therefore, is technological yet the research seems of a scientific nature. The methodology as well as the knowledge about the structure of a naturally occurring hormone and its behavior was scientific.
Skolimowski’s account of scientific research as a servant to technological concerns helps in classifying this work. Similarly, I can see Jarvie’s point that in a sense all knowledge is practical - a result of our struggle with the world. All research institutions must think practically and undertake paths of inquiry that they think will lead to useful knowledge because life forces them to do so.
However, I also feel a need for a more comprehensive philosophy of technology that will unify this work under a single category. Mario Bunge’s characterization of applied science and modern technology as a system of grounded rules accomplishes this task; the way in which pure science and technology is related is clear. The osteoporosis research accomplishes a ‘grounding’ of some rules about the behavior of the hormone, as well as providing scientific data about the structure of the hormone.
The experiments that were carried out were based on scientific laws, and the results helped explain the behavior and activity of the hormone. The resultant discoveries about the hormone definitely enlarged our present system of knowledge about the world: specifically about a certain human hormone’s structure and activity. However, the data collected was explained (grounded) in scientific law, and a course of action for the strengthening of the activity of the hormone became visible as a result of the research.
The problem seems to boil down to the fact that the aims of this research had many faces - and it is the aims of the work that determine its nature (whether the research is technological or scientific.) On the one hand, the research was motivated by a need to enlarge our base of knowledge about the structure of the world. While at the same time, this specific knowledge was sought after for long-term practical reasons (to overcome osteoporosis)- at least that was the hope of the researchers. In my opinion, this research falls most clearly in the category of Bunge’s applied science and grounded rules.
I.C. Jarvie’s analysis focuses on the social aspects of technology, and I agree with his treatment of social and contextual influences on technology as instrumental in comprehending its scope. He argues that all knowledge is, in a sense, ‘practical knowledge’ in that research into reality is fueled not by some pure curiosity but by a need to control our environment. The way in which we exert influence over our environment is largely determined by our cultures and standards, including our moral codes. Jarvie is right in stressing that knowledge is power, and that it is often sought after for that reason instead of pure curiosity. However, I believe that there are different kinds of knowledge and research, and it is important to keep in mind this difference. It is important especially when we come to investigate the ethical nature of technological research and development as opposed to scientific research.
The next question, therefore, concerns the ethical nature of technology. Let me examine the influence of technology on society. I am in agreement with Mario Bunge in his thesis that the technologist ought to be morally responsible for the changes that he or she causes in the world. In his article, “Towards a Technoethics” Bunge argues that the technologists of the world (including the managers and politicians) are most responsible for the shape that it is in; they are responsible to mankind, not just their employers.
Mario Bunge points out the immense influence that the scientists, technologists, engineers and managers have on our society: “You cannot manipulate the world as if it were a chunk of clay and at the same time disclaim all responsibility for what you do or refuse to do, particularly since your skills are needed to repair whatever damages you may have done or at least to forestall future such damages. “ (23). Especially the technologist is shown by Bunge to be a moral agent that is responsible to the world. The engineer faces moral decisions when he is designing a project because there are many expectations of him: management wants an efficient plan, the workers want good conditions, neighbors want clean environment, colleagues want advanced designs, and consumers expect useful and reasonably priced products. The kind of design that is made by the engineer or technologist depends on the way in which he values these expectations.
Bunge’s distinction between pure science and technology enable him to draw a clear line between what is ethically neutral and what is not. For Bunge, “all pure science is good or at worst worthless since by definition it is concerned only with the improvement of our models of the world and knowledge is a good in itself. On the other hand, technology is concerned with human action upon things and men. That is, technology gives power over things and men - and not all power is good to everyone” (24). I agree with Bunge in that there is some technology that is inherently evil; I am not convinced by the likes of John von Neumann who has written that “technology - like science - is neutral all through, providing only means of control applicable to any purpose, indifferent to all” (25)
Bunge offers us some powerful examples of technology that is inherently evil: thanatology or the technology of killing, design of weaponry, extermination camps and so on. According to Bunge, some technologies are inherently evil because all of their useful effects are outweighed by the negative aspects (such as the destruction of human lives, aggression, violence and callousness and the mutilation of the environment). I agree. I believe that there is at least one other way in which some technology can be seen as inherently evil - and this stems from an analysis of the topic by Emmanuel G. Mesthene.
Mesthene rightly argues that new technology and technological progress and invention creates new physical possibilities that did not exist before (e.g.: the wheel, the rocket.) Mesthene generally defends technology in “Technology and Wisdom”(26) against irrational critiques which condemn the whole of it as evil. He stresses that technology has two faces: on the one hand it is our liberator from the harsh nature of our environment while at the same time its use can lead to changes in behavior, values, and culture and the emergence of new problems. As far as some technology being inherently evil, however, what new possibilities does a machine of human torture, the atomic bomb, or an engineered human disease promise us? All of the new possibilities that are given to us by such inventions are evil (e.g., human pain and suffering) and in this way, some technological artifacts are thus inherently evil.
Mesthene calls for wisdom in deciding how to use technology and Bunge goes even further to stress that we need wisdom in the creation of technology. Bunge challenges the technologist to look ahead and create technology that will serve human beings in positive ways instead of harming them. Specifically, it is the long term effects of technology that need to be predicted with greater accuracy and this ought to be done with the help of applied scientists of all disciplines.
In summary, I have examined some fundamental problems in the philosophy of technology. I began with a definition of technology, technological and scientific knowledge, and the difference between science and technology. In my opinion, Mario Bunge offers us the most comprehensive view of technology. Skolimowski and Jarvie offer valuable thoughts as well: they have certainly opened my mind to the enormous scope of technology and ways to understand it.
Science and technology are indeed intimately related, since it seems impossible to talk about and explain one without mentioning the other. Technology fuels science, and vice versa. It is irrational to claim that all technology is evil. Instead, I agree with Mesthene that technological innovation is often simultaneously a solution to a problem posed by the environment while at the same time it creates new problems. New technology offers us new choices, and we need wisdom in order to pick the right options. We need not rebel against all technology. Instead, I call for a more responsible use of technology and more importantly: a more responsible creation of technology by the engineer who cannot hide from his moral responsibility to the public behind his employer.
1. Carl Mitcham. Thinking Through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1994. (p. 38).
Articles marked with a (*) are were found in:
Carl Mitcham and Robert Mackay. Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the philosophical problems of technology. The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan Publishing Co, Inc., USA, 1983:
2*. James K. Feibleman. "Pure Science, Applied Science, and
Technology: An Attempt at Definitions" (p. 33)
3. Ibid. (p. 33)
4, 5, 6. Ibid (p. 36)
7. James K. Feibleman, "Technology as Skills" Technology and Culture, VII, No.3, (summer) 1966, (p.318 - 328)
8*. Henryk Skolimowski. "The Structure of Thinking in
Technology" (p. 44)
9. Ibid. (p. 45)
10, 11. Ibid. (p. 43)
12. Ibid (p. 44)
13. I.C. Jarvie. "The Social Character of Technological Problems: Comments on Skolimowski's Paper" (p. 52)
14. I.C. Jarvie "Technology and the Structure of Knowledge"
15. Ibid (p. 61)
16. Mario Bunge. "Toward a Philosophy of Technology" (p. 62)
17, 18, 19, 20. Ibid (p. 63)
21. Ibid. (p. 68)
22. Biochemistry, Vol.31, No.7, 1992 (2056-2063). W. Neugebauer, W.K. Surewicz, H.L. Gorgdon, R.L. Samorjai, W. Sung, G.E. Willick. "Structural elements of human parathyroid hormone and their possible relation to biological activities."
23. The Monist, Vol.60, 1977 (96-107). Mario Bunge. "Towards A Technoethics." (p. 98)
24. Ibid. (p. 99-100)
25. Richard C. Dorf. Technology, Society and Man. Boyd & Fraser Publishing Company, USA, 1974 (p. 159)
26*. Emmanuel G. Mesthene. "Technology and Wisdom"