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Philosophy of Technology

by: Tomasz Neugebauer

January 20, 1998

page: 4 of 6

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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.

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