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Kieran Brayford thinks ahead.
Are we, as James Tartaglia puts it in Philosophy in a Technological World, “powerless pawns in a game played by nobody”, or are we free to try and make our own futures, guided by our ability to think rationally?
On the face of things, the latter seems obvious. We can make a plan and do all we can to bring that plan into fruition. But this is not how the materialistic deterministic interpretation of physics sees things. In a world made of matter, where anything and everything is entirely at the mercy of physical laws, there seems to be no allowance for free thinking: we are powerless to affect the unfolding of events. If everything is matter and its machinations, then we’re simply along for the ride.
Tartaglia, who is Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at the University of Keele, argues that this kind of materialist thinking, which holds the physical world to be the sole reality, has done much to obscure the usefulness of philosophy as its own distinctive discipline. This is not helped by the open hostility towards philosophy displayed by some physicists. (Philosophy is dead, according to the late Stephen Hawking.) Tartaglia argues moreover that philosophy itself has become something of a parasite on physics, and that it has lost touch with its own vital spirit as it tries to secure its continued relevance by incorporating scientific findings into its thinking. In his view this is a dangerous development. Scientific advancement usually spurs on technological advancement, and technological advancement is a challenge because of the way it can change our way of living, so it would be good to be able to independently reflect on that. For instance, for many of us, both our time at work and our leisure time involves sitting in front of a screen. The internet has rendered record shops, cinemas, libraries, newspapers, and the like novelties rather than necessities.
Tartaglia notes that these changes have befallen us without consultation or consent, yet the impact these ‘engineering projects’ (p.8) will have on life will be profound. He is no fawning technological optimist, but he is also no pessimist. The book highlights flaws of both in an interesting dissection of Stephen Pinker and John Gray. Unlike those, like Pinker, who see technology as the unqualified bringer of a better life, or those such as Gray, who think technology can realise the full potential of the evil streak running through us all, Tartaglia understands that technology is neither all good, nor all bad. Yet he is also keen to stress that if technology does go awry, the consequences are potentially terrible. In his view, mass democratic oversight of technology is key to avoiding a terrible future. A sardonic portrait of one such possible future is found in the final section of the book: ‘A Utopia’. If technologies are going to change our ways of living, we must ensure that they do so in the ways we want them to. We must decide what projects should go forward, and which should be left alone. In short, technological development needs a strong dose of ethical rationality.
How best to approach this? Tartaglia presents two interesting suggestions towards solving the problem, one practical and one theoretical. The first is the promotion of philosophical reasoning by adding philosophy to the school curriculum. It’s hard not to agree with him here: future generations will have their lives effected most radically by technological change, so it’s best that they go forth into that world with the critical-mindedness a philosophical education can cultivate. Armed with this, future generations will be able to restore a degree of prudence to technological advancement, ensuring that advances serve us rather than threaten us.
His second suggestion is to reject the materialistic thinking that has laid philosophy low in the first place. Tartaglia explains that although he was once himself a materialist, he has become an idealist. Unlike materialism, which thinks fundamental reality is best expressed in the equations of physics, idealism holds that “our inner mental lives provide the best model for trying to conceive the ultimate nature of reality” (p.31). For an idealist, the external world is like our internal worlds.
Some may criticise this position as being mystical in nature: “Do minds exist floating loose in the world?” they might ask. “How can it be that experiences can exist outside of brains?” As Tartaglia deftly states, this line of thought retains its materialist baggage – such questions are only problematic if you’re already operating within a materialist conception of the world. He argues that if one drops this baggage, one can come to see that our direct experience is what is primarily real, not the particles, forces, and fields. In Tartaglia’s view, the physical constituents of the world being held up as primary reality encourages philosophy’s subservience to physical science through materialism.
The book is terse, lively, and enjoyable. Tartaglia seems to relish the opportunity to challenge our preconceptions, and how we think we know what we think we know. If he is right that the dominance of materialism is beginning to wane (and I think he may be), then Philosophy in a Technological World is undoubtedly a useful primer for what is to come. I especially recommend it to those who feel instinctively rankled by its idealist leanings. There is enough in the book to maybe change your mind.
© Kieran Brayford 2021
Kieran Brayford is a PhD Candidate at Keele University researching technology and consciousness.
• Philosophy in a Technological World: Gods and Titans, James Tartaglia, Bloomsbury, 2020, £50 hb, 256 pages, ISBN: 1350070106