Adam I. Gerard

Techne and Philosophy

This post combines a few thoughts about the relationships between software, hardware, truth, and philosophy.

Heidigger and Technology

CAVEAT: I am not a big fan of Heidigger's work. I do appreciate the artful style of his prose but it has a tendancy to obfuscate what is otherwise a relatively simple (here, trivial) observation.

Heidigger asserted:

  1. That technology, the modern concept, derives from the ancient word techne which was of foremost concern to philosophers.
  2. That technology is not merely instrumental - it is not merely an ennumeration of tools. It is not merely the invention of new tools either.
  3. That technology is truth-revealing (more below).

Let's work through this way of thinking about technology. Consider a new kind of LIDAR with the ability to penetrate 200 meters below the Earth's mantle. (These are being used now in archaeology and geology.) According to Heidigger, they are not merely tools to some instrumental end, they reveal some fundamental aspect of the historical or physical world. They reveal truth (and make that revelation possible).

But, technology can also be truth-concealing. Consider just how much we take for granted in our everyday lives. We subsist in and on a sea of technologies (reading, writing, electricity, and so on) that remain opaque to most of us (and unexamined). Most of humanity lives in the City (a modern concept) which has become the "Natural State of Man".

In this way, technology both conceals and is concealed (contra Heidigger). And, in the example above, we see how technology is sometimes used to reveal the already concealed (here, archaeology) expanding Heidigger's thesis.

But, then again, we might think it strange that Truth would not be an instrumental end either (which is my chief critique of The Question Concerning Technology).

Machines and Software

It is often said that, "Software is to Hardware as the Mind is to the Brain". (I won't affirm or deny that analogy here.)

Now, consider:

  1. Software is the soul of the machine.
  2. Software and Hardware are two sides of the same coin.
  3. Hardware without Software is either dependent on mechanical processes (like human input) or a dead hunk of plastic or metal.
  4. Software without Hardware is a dead language or a hieroglyphic.

Fictions and Technology

Is science fiction merely science that has not yet been realized? Consider these historical fictitious monsters or conceits:

  1. Golems
  2. Wizardry (Spellcasting)
  3. Magic
  4. Familiars

Today we have:

  1. Robots
  2. Programming
  3. Advanced (High) Technology
  4. Drones

Philosophy that Became Technology

I've often said that philosophy is the best place to look for the world's greatest products and world-changing business ideas.

Read about Philosophers in Business.

In the theme of Heidigger's Question Concerning Technology above (and playfully [e.g. - we're not using this as a matter of logical reasoning] violating this logical fallacy I identified - yes, let's play some Language Games and entertain our Metaphysical Humors!):

  1. Nietzsche

i. The Overhuman - the birth of flight.

ii. Supermen - genetically modified humans.

iii. Eternal Recurrence - the dawn of film.

iv. Will to Power - electricity and mass electrification.

  1. Husserl

i. Bracketing - pixels and pixel User Interface (UI) design - the concept of software "windows", "tabs".

  1. Constructive Empiricists and the Phenomenologists

i. Sense Data - pixels

ii. Phenomenology - how the tiny "dots" of sense experience form meaningful human experiences (how pixels form an intuitive user experience)

  1. Leibniz and Descartes

i. Charistica Universalis - thinking machines / logical computers.

ii. Cartesian Coordinate System - GPS positioning (used in cars, automobile, flight, etc.).

iii. Identity of Indiscernibles - authentication and identity.

iv. Infinitesimal Calculus - invented by philosophers, used by engineers.

  1. Russell

i. Logical Atomism - the rationality and logic of nuclear/atomic weapons during the Cold War (the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction).

  1. Quine

i. The Web of Belief - the internet.

  1. Others

i. The way up is the same as the way down - elevators.

ii. Never step in the same stream twice - escalators oppose this notion.

iii. The Oracle of Delphi - syndicated advice columns.

Clarifying the 'Philosopher King'

Much is said of the ancient Greek philosophers (despite the fact that the most direct intellectual heritage we continue to plod along comes from Leibniz, Descartes, Nietzsche, Frege, Russell, Kant, Hume, etc. - the "Moderns") but very little is said of their sources of inspiration.

Enter, Archytas:

  1. Legendary mathematician in his time who solved the Delian problem posed by the Oracle at Delphi.
  2. Invented the first steam-powered pigeon made out of wood.
  3. Undefeated in battle as a military commander.
  4. Brilliant statesman elected to office 7 times (in unfortunate defiance of the constitution of his state).
  5. Arguably the role-model for Socrates' Philosopher King.

Though Plato was known to have held protractors and applied mathematics in disdain, the meeting of pure and applied mathematical ability, coupled with philosophy, cunning, and engineering aptitude produced one of the finest leaders in the ancient world.

We see the same with Wittgenstein:

  1. Thrice decorated in battle during the 1st World War.
  2. Either the inventor or one of the inventors of modern symbolic logic truth-tables.
  3. Ground-breaking work in philosophy of language, logic, and metaphilosophy.
  4. Forswore his family inheritance (the richest family in Austria prior to the 1st World War).
  5. Was given a Ph.D. and the Chair of the Philosophy program at Oxford due to his one book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
  6. Cautioned patients to not overdose on the addictive medicines that were used to treat pain at that time when working as an orderly (opiates).