Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, June 27, 2016

myths we can't help living by

One reason the technological history of modernity is a story worth telling: the power of science and technology to provide what the philosopher Mary Midgley calls “myths we live by”. For instance, Midgley writes,

Myths are not lies. Nor are they detached stories. They are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. They shape its meaning. For instance, machine imagery, which began to pervade our thought in the seventeenth century, is still potent today. We still often tend to see ourselves, and the living things around us, as pieces of clockwork: items of a kind that we ourselves could make, and might decide to remake if it suits us better. Hence the confident language of ‘genetic engineering’ and ‘the building-blocks of life’.

Again, the reductive, atomistic picture of explanation, which suggests that the right way to understand complex wholes is always to break them down into their smallest parts, leads us to think that truth is always revealed at the end of that other seventeenth-century invention, the microscope. Where microscopes dominate our imagination, we feel that the large wholes we deal with in everyday experience are mere appearances. Only the particles revealed at the bottom of the microscope are real. Thus, to an extent unknown in earlier times, our dominant technology shapes our symbolism and thereby our metaphysics, our view about what is real.

This is why I continue to protest against the view which, proclaiming that “ideas have consequences,” goes on to ignore the material and technological things that press with great force upon our ideas. Consider, for instance, the almost incredible influence that computers have upon our understanding of the human brain, even though the brain does not process information and is most definitely not in any way a computer. The metaphor is almost impossible for neuroscientists to escape; they cannot, generally speaking, even recognize it as a metaphor.

If we can even begin to grasp the power of such metaphors and myths, we can understand why a technological history of modernity is so needful.


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