Atheists are all cock-a-hoop these days and conceited about their self-proclaimed rationality, and yet clearly atheism is equally as religious as any other religion, and perhaps more so, since it depends on belief in an unseen matter: the belief that there is no god. And anyone who believes that the universe exists without a cause or that the big bang just happened in the emptiness of nothingness or that our universe is just one out of an infinite number of totally random universes is certainly a Believer with a very capital B. As Liebnitz said, the first question of philosophy is why is there something rather than nothing at all? Not many people want to ask that question today, let alone try to answer it.
In conversation tonight, someone raised Richard Dawkins and his ‘crusade’, and I use the word deliberately, and it made me reflect on some deeper issues of science in general.
Many people mistakenly believe that science is based on dispassionate and objective observations of the physical world, and deductions from those observations of some general rules of how that world works. This is very far from the truth. On the contrary, the scientific method is based on positing a thesis about how the world works and then going to find the evidence for that thesis, or evidence that would refute it. In the most extreme case occurring towards the historical end of science, two absolutely contrary theses were proved right: that light is both a particle and a wave form, as are indeed other entities such as electrons.
Now, Dawkins’ vulgar populist atheism is merely the most evident abuse of the process of stating a thesis and then seeking evidence in support of it. For example, in his dismal documentary on religion, The Root of All Evil, Dawkins went to Cairo, a city of millions of people the great majority of whom are humorous and kindly people, in order to fit Islam into his framework. However, rather than finding an average intelligent Egyptian or indeed a graduate of the Azhar trained in the traditional sciences, he sought out an American man from New York of Jewish background who had converted to Islam, embraced the most extreme possible manifestation of it, and who spouted rhetoric that most Cairenes would find abhorrent but which would have been very acceptable to the late Mr BL and his cohorts in the mountains. And unfortunately this sorry specimen was certainly not of a very sophisticated level of intellect, so that, predictably, Mr Dawkins dispatched his angry rhetoric without much difficulty, at least from the relative safety of the narrator’s perspective.
The point here is that he set out with a thesis in mind and then very selectively picked the evidence to back it up. Presumably then this is also how he proceeds in his scientific work, for the implicit and sometimes explicit claim he makes in his documentary and his writings is that he is extending his scientific outlook into other realms. But for me this is the most damning blow to his particularly ‘missionary’ and ‘evangelical’ take on evolution; for if his populist writings are a genuine reflection of how Dawkins works as a scientist then his evolutionary thinking can have no serious foundations whatsoever.
A curious and not particularly pleasant story: a people who have just killed more than a million Iraqi men, women and children, and whose history is based on the genocide of its land’s native peoples, is now calling the Turks genocidal:Â http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/10/washington/10cnd-armenia.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin Â Â Genocide is an evil without doubt, but why is it that hypocrisy and lies are even more repellant?Â
An essential element of the emerging new religion that binds modern people is the new piety: ecological concern. It is not wrong, but it is framed in such a way as to paralyse. For example, the auto manufacturers have produced new cars with drastically smaller carbon footprints, and naturally motorists want to own one, because it will ease his conscience about climate change. But he rarely asks about all the processes that bring that car to us: the sweeping away of inconveniently placed rain-forests, the mining of the minerals, and all the technological and industrial processes that converge to produce that car with a small carbon footprint. All those processes amount to a huge carbon footprint, and yet the private person has been taught to worry about his very own personal and much smaller footprint.Â
More alarming is the fact that we cannot distance those corporations as the work of wicked capitalists, for by and large modern man and woman work for those corporations, especially if we realistically count the state as merely another corporation in a corporate world. The state trains people in the institutions laughingly called education to take their place unquestioningly in the corporate world, the garages which claim to dispense something called medicine repair the mis-functioning and return them to the job, and the army dutifully defends corporate interests wherever they are threatened.
So that really significant carbon footprint of what we might call the titans is ours, but we have no control over it. Our voice is not heard, and is not going to be heard. Indeed, so accustomed are we to the idea that we are not going to be heard that we carry out our orders unhesitatingly and keep ecology as a hobby.Â
Thus Adolf Eichmann is the symbol for our age. When accused of sending uncountable numbers of Jews to their deaths through his arrangement of the transport to the concentration camps, his defence was that he was only obeying orders; he was simply doing his job. That is the condition of modern man: he is doing his job; the army in Iraq and Afghanistan has a job to do. They need to get on with the job. It is treachery to undermine them in the job they have to do, etc.
But what drives all of this, apart from modern man’s not-inconsiderable passive acquiescence in the crime? State and corporation all are dependent on finance and its mysterious operations. But that is the subject for another day.
Religion is from the Latin word ligareÂ ‘to bind’. It was what bound people to worship of God and His teachings. But those bonds are much looser today or entirely non-existent, and in their place we have other bonds that are powerful indeed: the bonds to the employer, the state and the bank. The new trinity of the new religion.
If we don’t understand slavery and slavehood, then we don’t understand freedom. Once the distinction is abolished and the slaves become free, by the same token the free become slaves.
There is something prior to technology without which it cannot be understood, and that is a method that analyses and breaks things down into what it regards as logical component pieces. The process that exemplifies this best is the search for the atom. The Greeks, notably Leucippus and Democritus, proposed that if one breaks something in half, and then breaks the half in half, that one can proceed only so far until one comes to something that is not divisible, which they call the â€œnot divisibleâ€ or atom. For â€œaâ€ means â€œnotâ€ and â€œtomâ€ means â€œdivisible. Of course, we all know that what has been called the atom was itself divisible further into the sub-atomic particles, but the basic idea still stands. The inheritors of this thinking called the atom, â€œthe basic building block of matterâ€ for they thought that matter and thus the universe is essentially something that has been built, and by calling the atom a building block they of course implied that once one understands this process we too can build.
Now one person most eloquently expressed anxiety at this process, and that was Mary Shelley, for in her novel Frankinstein, and remember that Frankinstein is the doctor and not his monster although arguably it is the doctor who is the real monster, she embodied this process in the doctor who, having anaylsed the human being into his consituent organs, limbs and bones, then decides that he too can build a human. Tellingly, although what he builds is hideous, it is nevertheless human. Frankinstein is unable to return its natural need for love, and it is this that drives the creature over the edge.
So this building activity of technology derives from this prior process of analysing and breaking down into the simplest elements.
So what does technology do? We ask this in the most general sense in order to get beyond the very specific picture of particular technologies. But let us take a specific in order to understand these general processes better: a Hi-Fi system. In it we have, for example, an amplifier. The amplifier does exactly what its name implies: it takes a weak input, a weak signal, and makes it stronger. If we step back from this example, we realise that technology does this throughout its realm. It takes a weak signal and amplifies it, whether it is a sound or a force or an idea. The media take weak signals, such as silly ideas, or poor analyses of situations, but through the power of the technology, it is transmitted into thousands and often millions of homes; it is amplified. We see instantly that this process is intimately connected to power, both in the physical sense and the political.
So having derived a general from a specific, let us now list a few more general features of technology.
Technology telescopes: i.e. it brings that which is distant much closer, and this derives from the Greek root â€œteleâ€ for distance. Obviously we have the telescope, telephone and television. Equally it brings that which is close to distant parts: the telephone is two-way. We can now blog and our writings can be read instantly in China or Borneo. All of us assume such a reality. We spend time in virtual communities.
Paradoxically, we see that it drives that which is closer further away, as most people have experienced with the mobile phone interrupting a conversation. The caller is brought closer but the people in the conversation are made distant.
It also microscopes: it enables one to see what is ordinarily too small to see. The detail. To do this it has to put a frame around the object excluding other things. This is an inescapable activity of science and technology. Focus in and exclude extraneous signals.
It accelerates. Things are speeded up, by planes, cars, and by processes. In general things are going faster today than they ever did, and will evidently go even faster tomorrow.
Technology reproduces, repeats, replicates, duplicates and multiplies, e.g. in factories. A simple movement is repeated endlessly. Industry analyses the manufacture of the shoe into minute processes which are then individually expedited by robots, or people behaving like robots, and then assembled. The shoe is no longer in the hands of a person but in the hands of a system, whether of machines or people or both. An unanticipated side-effect of this process is the utter boredom and tedium of peopleâ€™s lives since the part of the process or the product over which they have control is in itself meaningless. People are creatures of meaning.
Although the above list certainly does not cover everything that technology does, it gives an indication of some very key things that it does do. However, the above are not necessarily technological or machine driven. For example, our outline of the factory could equally well be applied to schooling or the state. The school has become a kind of factory for manufacturing citizens. It is an industrial process. Similarly, the state is an industry for processing citizens from birth until death. Machines are used, but the essence of these two examples is that people submit themselves, whether actively or passively, to being parts of a great machine. Thus, the word technology is not going to do for what we are trying to describe, and for that reason some people, such as the French writer Jacques Ellul, suggested that really we are dealing with technique.
So here we have a technique or set of techniques or sets of techniques and technologies which accelerate, amplify, reproduce, and telescope. Programmers have a maxim of computing which is â€œrubbish in, rubbish outâ€. Any such system or set of techniques behaves much like a computer programme, so that it basically amplifies, accelerates and reproduces the input. If it is the technical society that is destroying the planet, then it is this facet of it that is to blame. Before technique culture, mistakes were limited in scale. With technique culture, the mistakes are amplified and accelerated tremendously. What is perhaps more distressing is that the reach of mediocrity is extended greatly.
But where does this culture come from? The people of the planet asked themselves this question in different places and in different epochs and they said: it comes from Europe. Both Europeans and non-Europeans gave this answer.
As this technique culture grew, there was a broad spectrum of responses to it, whose two extremes were infatuation and repulsion. This was both in Europe and elsewhere. The first response was because of the control and the power it appeared to give, and men are prone to love control and power. However, they neglected to reflect on Dr Frankinstein’s case, for he was incapable of love. The people of technique culture are incapable of love.
The opposite response, repulsion and rejection, was to be found both in Europe and elsewhere. In its most extreme case it is to be seen in people who decided that no technology from later than the seventeenth century should be used, and they dedicated themselves to live in communities based on that principle.
Now these two responses were possible when technique culture was still growing, when there were still places it had not reached.
In the seventies, a New York painter called Tobias Schneebaum made a journey up the Amazon river. He was, probably deeply instinctively trying to get away from the all-enveloping technique culture. He went as far up the river as anyone would think to go and arrived at a missionary settlement. He asked them what lay further up the river? They told him that there were really terrible cannibal peoples. He immediately proceeded further up the river. Seeing a beach with some curious boulders on it, he disembarked to inspect them, but was astonished to find them to be the heads of people who were squatting there staring at him. After a moment in which they contemplated each other, they lept to their feet and embraced him wildly and happily. They were completely naked. He was taken in to their society, made welcome, and lived happily with them for a year without seeing anything untoward. At the end of that period, the young men, among whom he was included, primed themselves for some martial escapade, and he and they went to another village where there was a fight, with them killing a number of people there. Then they ate parts of the dead people, and he ate with them. This was the beginning of his disengaging from them and he ultimately returned to New York and wrote a book called, “Keep the River on Your Right”. However, the reprise of the story is that in the nineties he returned there with a documentary film crew. The missionaries had got there before him along with the Coca Cola. The erstwhile savages were now in tee-shirts and were suffering from various ailments such as unemployment, something for which they probably had no word in their language.
Thus, the reality is that the technique culture has penetrated everywhere on the planet. There is nowhere outside of it, and so the option of wanting it in that infatuated way or of rejecting it is no longer open to us. Whatever we think of it, we are stuck with it.
But now we have to ask the question again: where does the culture of technique and technology come from? We have inherited a crude theology from Rome which basically sees the world in terms of nature and civilisation. In the Christianised version, God is seen as the Creator of nature and man the maker of civilisation. The reality is that this is how people really do see things, no matter what philosophers and theologians say. And of course because man’s civilisation has grown so much, people no longer believe in God.
Early scientists such as Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Kepler and Copernicus were undoubtedly believers in the Christian sense, but what they discovered was so powerful and it produced so many results that as night follows day the next generation were basically atheists, such as Laplace who on being asked by Napoleon why his book on celestial mechanics had no mention of the Creator replied, “Monsieur, I had no need of that hypothesis.” This was from arrogant pride at the sheer extent of new information and in the power of the new technical scientific man.
But what was forgotten is that man is natural; he is a part of nature. What man creates is a part of the natural order, even when it seems un-natural. Thus it is a part of God’s creation. Everything comes from Allah. He is the Creator of everything because if this were not the case, we would be dealing with a plurality of gods, which is a very primitive idea. However, the natural order contains both fruit and poison, it contains both health and cancer. Thus, we are in need of a discrimination. Clearly something in our culture is cancerous. But we are not taking the stance of the rejectionists that sees rejection of technique culture in toto as the only way forward. Thus we are in serious need of some kind of discrimination.
Let us return to our shoe factory. The ability of the shoe factory process to turn out copious amounts of shoes is undisputed. However, the shoes suffer from one flaw: like most industrially manufactured things they are mediocre; they are neither superlatively well made and designed nor on the other hand unusable. The truth is that all things being equal and price being no consideration, anyone who had the choice of a handmade shoe or an industrially manufactured one, would choose the former. So why did the craft tradition go down before industry? Price. The industrial product was cheaper. Very often it was not cheaper because it was genuinely less expensive to make, but because the owners practised undercutting; they looked at the price of shoes and then decided that their shoes would be cheaper, often dramatically so. They knew that by this means they would drive their craft competitors out of business, at which point the price could be whatever they wished it to be. Now this is where our wished-for discrimination might come in useful. Undercutting used to be considered illegal in many societies.
In many traditional markets, a shoe of a known description had a known price. It was not acceptable to go below it. Thus, tradesmen had to compete with each other in terms of making the very best shoes rather than fighting each other by means of price.
So here we are up against a very different type of technique, which has little to do with machines or technology. We are up against financial and commercial technique and it has proved more decisive than the machine. We also see the difference between technique and law. Law is the idea, whether in society or in nature, that things work in a certain way. Technique finds ways to circumvent law. In our acknowledgement that the technique culture ultimately comes from Allah and our awareness that we are in need of a discrimination, it is clear that it is only Allah Who can give us the discrimination we need for that which comes from Him. It is Islam that contains that discrimination until the end of time. The task of future Islam is to recover law, Divine law, and to make it dominant over technique, both in terms of technology but particularly in terms of financial and commercial technique.
In the name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the Most Merciful and may Allah bless His slave and messenger Muhammad and his family and companions and grant perfect peace.
I witness that there is no god but Allah alone without partner, and I witness that Muhammad is His slave and Messenger, may Allah bless him and grant him peace.