Ethics and Psychology of Technology

Today, I’d like to elaborate a bit on my professional field, science and technology assessment. There is no doubt that these two domains have a massive impact on our lives. Not only does scientific investigation generate empirical knowledge of physical features of the world and of its systems (for example society, environment, human psyche), and not only does technology development create technical artefacts and other products, the ubiquitous scientific and technological mission also influences the way people perceive the world and think of the lifeworld experiences they make. Scientific realism and physical reductionism, but also the vision that everything that one could imagine and desire is technically feasible and “engineerable” – including emotional, abstract or normative entities like love, happiness, politics, etc. – dominates our age. For many years (roughly up to the 1960s in Europe and USA, in Asia still ongoing), positivism was the driving paradigm of modernism: as long as we put sufficient efforts into something, we can achieve everything and will also always be able to correct negative effects into beneficial ones! Just let science and technology do! In terms of my tree of knowledge: Science and technology are not only branches in the tree, they also create new channels of meaning-construction through which other branches (like politics, economy, culture) are fed. Here are a few thoughts on that.

A first necessary clarification must be made on the relation between science and technology. The common belief is that science comes first and produces the necessary knowledge that – in the next step – is applied and exploited for the design and engineering of technical artefacts. This view is contested by empirical research on the history of S&T. The steam machine, for example, was developed by craftsmen (James Watt, Thomas Newcomen) who had no background in physics or other sciences. The practical problems and flaws of the steam machine that occurred in the years after its invention triggered a more systematic scientific study of thermodynamics and mechanics. In this respect, we can say, a technological challenge that engineers and craftsmen faced was taken up by scientist in order to help solving it. Technology leaps ahead science in most of the cases. Moreover, undoubtedly, man created artefacts long before the elaboration of a scientific methodology.

Then, there was the idea that technological progress is somehow inevitable and unstoppable. Early philosophers of technology formulated the paradigm of technological determinism according to which technological progress follows predestined courses and shapes society. Common examples (citing Karl Marx) are the windmill bringing about the feudal system and the steam mill inducing the transition to an industrial society. Around the 1960s, this paradigm shifted dramatically. Facilitated by the great system thinkers Niklas Luhmann, Jürgen Habermas, Thomas Kuhn and others, supported by pragmatists (e.g. James Dewey), phenomenologists (e.g. Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger) and the early constructivists (here, especially, Ludwik Fleck, Gregory Bateson, Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, Paul Watzlawick, and others), the new predominant model of social constructivism (in America often termed “constructionism”) draws a picture of society shaping technological progress according to its needs, demands and desires. This fits well with the tree of knowledge idea: In the time after the second world war, people’s fears and concerns (e.g. the threat from nuclear weapons) were no longer satisfyingly soothed by politics or religion, so they sought meaning in technology as major factor to improve the quality of life. Technological artefacts were produced as a response to social needs (for example by economic market thinking and profit prospects), not because “it was possible”. At the same time – in face of nuclear threat and increasing environmental destruction – technological development and its risks and uncertainties moved more and more into the focus of social sciences. Since the deterministic thinking (“There’s nothing we can do about it, anyway!”) was replaced by constructivist thinking (“We can intervene in the construction process!”), there was big optimism that technology governance can influence the risk-benefit balance in favour of the (intended) positive outcome. This was the time that the US government installed the “Office of Technology Assessment” and, a bit later, European countries established similar institutions.

The question at that time (around the 1960s, 70s) looking at the past was: “How could we do Science and Technology without social sciences?!”. 40 years later (which is now) the technology assessors ask themselves “How could we do Science, Technology and Society (STS) studies without Ethics?!”. It was around the 1990s and early 2000s, significantly triggered by the rise of biotechnology and nanotechnology, that many disciplines (the sciences themselves, sociology, politics, philosophy, but also the public) recognised the need for more profound reflection on ethical issues of S&T. The widespread, irrational, but in parts aggressive opposition of the public against genetic engineering surprised the enactors of this S&T field, and left them hamstrung. Great prospects (envisioned by the scientists, medical practitioners, politicians) were juxtaposed with great moral challenges and imagined threats for humankind. The same can be said for nanotechnology, a field in which the major concern arises from “unclear risks” (expecting risks without knowing what the particular risks can be, how strong they impact and who is exposed). The picture of “value-free science” and “neutral technology” had to be given up for good. The challenge of established and unquestioned normative frameworks – and also ways of meaning-construction – by technological progress led to normative uncertainty and gave rise to a call for ethical analysis, since the common tools and reasoning strategies proved inefficient in light of conflict potentials. This is aptly illustrated in a statement by Glenn McGee (in his essay Pragmatic epistemology and the activity of bioethics., in “Pragmatist ethics for a technological culture”, edited by Jozef Keulartz, Michiel Korthals, Maartje Schermer, and Tsjalling Swierstra, Springer, 2002, p.112):

[We] really are only able to, and need to, question our basic assumptions in the moment when we collide with an element of the complexity of our life, a tear in the routine of experience that requires us to rethink things in order that we might progress along our current (or any other alternate) course.

New forms of technology assessment attempted to include the public in decision-making on S&T development (participatory TA), or to accompany progress from the beginning with studies on ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) (e.g. constructive TA). Commissions on particular S&T topics in the established parliamentary TA institutions involved more and more ethics experts (“ethicists”) besides the technical, political, economic and social experts. A problem of the early years of ethical evaluation of S&T was the “speculative” character of S&T ethics, and the expert-driven, very intellectual-academic “top down” approach the experts preferred (from ethical theory down to particular problems). Meanwhile, however, a whole set of useful and valuable methodologies and approaches for the ethical assessment of S&T has been developed (for example by experienced scholars in the field such as Armin Grunwald, Arie Rip, Ortwin Renn, Tsjalling Swierstra, Alfred Nordmann, and others). Again, constructivism and pragmatism had a major impact on the (self-)understanding of ethics in S&T domains: It is only worth the efforts when it comes to practicable, viable, plausible, down-to-earth solutions. The key for the success of it is interdisciplinarity: Scientists and practitioners engage in collaborative discourse with social scientists, ethicists, philosophers and political decision-makers, and sometimes with representatives of the “wider public” (often NGOs, or other affected interest groups). The difficulties that arise from the wide variety of expectations and viewpoints can again be illustrated by the tree of knowledge: All these stakeholders tend to use different channels for meaning-construction. In order to get closer to what Habermas and Apel called ideal discourse – one in which all participants can contribute arguments without any power hierarchies, one in which the best argument wins and not the most popular – it could be useful to reconstruct arguments according to this scheme: How did a discourse participant construct meaning? What is the root (fear? expertise? emotion? selfish greed?)? What is the argumentative channel (inconsiderate default setting? (religious) dogmatism? empirical reason? profit thinking?)?

This point brings me – after describing past and presence of S&T assessment – to a future vision: Maybe in 20 or 30 years from now, maybe sooner, maybe later, we will look back at this time and think “How could we assess ethical and social implications of science and technology without psychology?!”. Isn’t the understanding of how we construct meaning a field for psychological research rather than for ethics (or philosophy in general) or social sciences? As far as I can see it, the specific sub-discipline of social psychology is already implemented in STS, but I am thinking of something different. Let me explain with an example from the field of media ethics: It is commonly accepted that ethical issues in media have to be separated into a “producer ethics” (What is ethically acceptable concerning the production and dissemination of media content?) and a “consumer ethics” (What constitutes “ethically acceptable” consumption of media content and usage of media infrastructure?). So far, technology ethics, in this respect, focussed almost exclusively on “producer ethics”, taking “the public”, “the society” or “the citizen” as a grey black-boxed group. Even more, it seems to me that many technology assessors have a “responsible, interested, engaged citizen” in mind when reflecting on public participation in S&T policy. Is that tenable? Isn’t the majority of society members (with variances between different countries, of course) selfish, disinterested, lazy, uninformed, dumb people? Example: A citizen panel providing participation opportunity in decision-making on selecting radioactive waste disposal sites – a topic with presumably big conflict potential – for local citizen attracted 8 (eight!) people (and only with the incentive for getting paid for their participation) in an urban catchment of 200,000 inhabitants in England. Not to speak of the highly anti-intellectual, ill-informed, religiously biased and regressive public policy discourses observed in the USA, a country that is obviously full of fools (how else can it be explained that they elect Donald Trump to be their president?!)! The first “psychological” question is, therefore: What matters to the people and why? Are the experts’ estimations on what matters to the public always realistic and appropriate? However, a second psychological question appears much more important to me: What is the “consumer ethics” of technology? What makes people purchase, use or reject a certain technology (besides sociological answers to this question)? How do people construct meaning from the existence and availability of technological artefacts? Only with this question, for example, would it be possible to perform an assessment of smartphone technology. Imagine what this question would in return mean for the responsibility of technology producers: If it turns out that a technology supports undesirable psychological traits (addiction, emotional coldness, increasing social isolation, aggression, etc.), would it be advisable to refrain from the production and dissemination (which could be driven by profit expectation, knowing that people will buy it)? How paternalistic may S&T development be? Here might be a specific entry point for “Buddhist technology ethics”: Does the development support “suffering” in the sense that it feeds the mind poisons (esp. attachment, or greed), or should it be channelled in a way that it facilitates liberation from it? We will see. Currently, the psychological aspects of social construction of technology are dealt with in the same way that ethical issues have been treated for long: somehow in the background, without granting it the level of expertise that it deserves. It was believed that everybody can do ethics. In the face of intractable conflicts it turned out to be crucial, anyhow, to include professional ethical expertise. Currently, it is the psychological aspects that are given only a marginal importance. “Everybody can do psychology!” – Really? Maybe soon in the future we will include social, environmental and “cognitive” psychologists in our S&T assessments. I would welcome that!

tadisciplines

The inclusion of psychology might also help “grounding” and clarifying many philosophical and ethical positions on S&T issues. Take, for example, this statement by Jean-Pierre Dupuy in the “Companion to the Philosophy of Technology” (edited by Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen and Vincent F. Hendricks, Routledge, 2009, chapter 38, p.216):

Indeed, the metaphysics of the NBIC convergence dreams of overcoming once and for all every given that is a part of the human condition, especially the finiteness of a human life – its mortality and its beginning in birth.

These are great words, but is that really true? Probably we can assume that existential fears are the predominant drivers of most human activity, but it sounds a bit far-fetched to claim that the underlying motivation (“dream”) of Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno enactors is – in a conscious fashion – to overcome mortality. All the dedicated “transhumanists” are people outside the S&T development domain who just conclude from recent S&T trends that transhumanism is a goal worth achieving. However, deeper insights into these driving forces of S&T progress might be delivered rather by psychological disciplines than by sociology or philosophy.

Here are some books that serve as great “further reading” on this topic. At least, they recently inspired me to write this letter.

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Mysticism, Religion, and Atheism

With the Tree of Knowledge I have an illustrative tool at hand to describe my ideas and thoughts concerning the huge topic “religion”. The following reflections must be regarded as a more than crude sketch since a “complete” overview of the matter would fill a shelf in a library. I will try to stick to the crucial aspects to make my viewpoint clear. I will not go into detail in the various historical manifestations of particular religions. A great overview can be found here (pinterest) or here (facebook), comprised in this illustration by Simon E. Davies:

treeofreligions2-0

We have to go back to the very roots of mankind. What must it have been like for our ancestors at the transition from moment-bound situational utility-driven cognition (of an ape) to an aware self-reflective past- and future-oriented mind (of a homo)? The conscious perception of the world in terms of its potential – not only the situational exploitation of the given but the creation of opportunity by active and purpose-directed intervention – co-arose with the drive to understand that world that homo found himself in. The quest for knowledge began. The understanding of time is a necessary precondition for that, I guess. Past experiences are stored and processed in order to use them for present actions which are future-directed in the sense that specific outcomes are anticipated and extrapolated from trustworthy past experiences. Physical deficiencies – homo was not the fastest, strongest, perceptually best skilled – were outweighed by knowledge and its successful application. Here, the enterprise of constructing meaning from experience began. But what did it look like when the knowledge base was still very small? I imagine it like this:

I move. I am alive and I can die. The bird and the mammoth move. They are alive and they can die (and I eat them). The stone is cold and doesn’t move. It is inanimate (and I can’t eat it). The sun moves. It is alive but obviously can’t die (and I can’t catch and eat it)!

This is the birth of mysticism, the personification of unexplainable and sometimes frightening phenomena, the separation of “things under the sun”, “the myriad of creatures” on the one hand from “the heavenly realm” with all its powers brought upon us on the other. A quick search across known ancient cultures from all around the globe reveals that almost all of them worship entities that are in one way or another related to astronomical or meteorological occurrences: sun gods, rain gods, thunder gods, star fairies, wind ghosts, etc. An important impact was certainly the development of spoken language to communicate abstract ideas, thoughts and feelings. The members of a clan or society could discover that they share certain fears, concerns, worries and also explanations and meanings. We can imagine how the new possibility of exchanging viewpoints and debating pushed the advancement of culture as the glue that keeps a clan together and creates identification. “You are one of us because you think like we do!“. This might be the turning point from more or less individual mysticism towards organised religion.

Despite the common view that the discovery of spoken language was the most impacting achievement of mankind, I claim that the invention of alphabets – written language – had an even bigger impact. Spoken language was still situational and “out of the moment”. Capturing thoughts in written words, in contrast, requires a deeper reflection on what the thought actually was. The speaker lets out what is on his mind in the moment of talking. The writer is able to move back in time and reproduce streams of thought, modify and refine them, and reflect on consequences and implications. In terms of the Tree of Knowledge: Whereas before the predominant channel of meaning-construction was the default setting (driven by self-made experiences and their emotional context, mostly well-being and fear), the invention of writing facilitated the opening of new channels such as education and dogmatism. Social and moral codes and possible world explanations could be written down by those who are intellectually capable of it. Knowledge became power and the formation of social hierarchies as we still experience it today began. Those who suffered more – from existential threats, diseases, losses, tragedies – were able to find ease (to a certain extent) in those who gave them understandable and plausible explanations and meanings of the experiences they face. With the help of knowledgeable “masters” the ordinary people were able to “survive” existential threats and tragedies – sometimes by following down-to-earth rules, for example on hygiene, sometimes by simply having hope and trust in the future course of the world.

Let’s take, for example, the Bible: The old testament is full of rules that, when violated, imply horrible punishments such as chopping off hands or death by stoning. Does that mean that the God that is described in the Bible is a cruel dominant ruler? I think, it is much more pragmatic. The Bible is written by many contributors from various regions and epochs. The old testament is a collection of advises and rules for daily life, intended as guideline for people who have no education and no other source of rules for a successful life (=survival). For example, it is written that a man is not allowed to sit on a chair that was occupied before by a woman in her menstruation period. If he does, he will receive 20 hits with a birch. This sounds ridiculous from our perspective, but it made sense for a society in which the common people had no knowledge about infectious diseases or hygiene standards. Guess what is more efficient: explaining to them the pathways of infections and the hygienic importance of keeping furniture clean, or the paternalistic and clear rule “if you do that you’ll be punished!”? Compare that to how I protect you, little baby, from harm: Instead of explaining the physics of electricity and the effects of an electric current on your body system, I simply tell you “Don’t touch the power socket!” or I just block it from your access. In this way, as a father, I have power over you because I know better (currently). And in the same way, knowledgeable leaders know better than the common people and, therefore, have power over them.

Here, religion is interwoven with politics. And where is politics there are also people who misuse it to satisfy their greedy and unscrupulous needs for power and influence. The goal to support common people with helpful rules in a paternalistic way turns into a motivation to “keep people small and stupid” by inflicting doctrines and dogmas upon them. Instead of soothing people’s fears with hope and warm narratives, the church (as the political manifestation of religion) exploits these fears for their own selfish purposes. The Bible, then, is not a sourcebook for codes of life conduct and morals stabilising the social community anymore, but an instrument of threat and indoctrination. Today, we learn at school that texts have to be interpreted in the context of the author’s era, social realm and political situation. This is, of course, also the case for the Bible. The church, however, is built on the dogma of “The Word” that is divine, eternal, never-changing and true. There is no room for interpretation, because – as soon as believers start thinking about the meaning of the narratives presented in the Bible – the church would lose its justification as an important social institution. With other words: The church claims the one right way of meaning-construction for itself and requires believers to follow that one way.

I’d like to give two examples from the very beginning of the Bible. The first story that is told is the creation of the world by God within six days and a rest on the 7th day. The church claims that this is the exact truth, taken literally. A mind- and careless follower will, therefore, believe that it happened like that. Today we know that it didn’t happen like that, so we think that those who still believe it must be entirely stupid, brainwashed, or simply foolish idiots (mostly found in the USA). Does that mean the Bible is “wrong”? Let’s see it from a hermeneutical perspective: This story made it into the old testament around 3500 years ago, but is probably even older. At that time, people had no idea of evolutionary processes or of cosmic constellations. Yet, they ask themselves where all this (the world they see) came from. The “best explanation” was this story. Today we have better explanations, but we may admit that an important principle – a certain timely order of sophistication – is also found in the creation narrative: first God made the sun (night and day) and the earth, then plants, then water animals and land animals, and finally mankind. This rough order of development is more or less confirmed by insights into evolutionary processes, just that the Bible puts that into words that are easy to understand and reflect the possible degree of knowledge of that time. The “mistake” is to take this as an eternal truth, as if we would never increase and sophisticate our degree of knowledge.

The second story of the Bible is the “original sin”: Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise after eating from the “tree of knowledge”. Now, this is interesting, because I depict my idea of meaning-construction as a tree of knowledge, too. Christians (I mean those who really believe in God and practice Christian religion, not those German Christians who are actually non-religious) interpret this episode as “Don’t challenge God but trust in his benevolence! If Adam and Eve hadn’t challenged him, we would still live in paradise!” (therefore: original sin). Anti-Christians (for example atheists) interpret the story as “See! God wanted man to be stupid, without any knowledge, just following his orders!”. These are two ways of meaning-construction: one through the channel of (religious) dogmatism (take the Bible literally and worship God), one through the channel of scepticism (arising from scientism, liberalism, or others). However, also the latter takes this story literally in a way that it doesn’t ask for its narrative and hermeneutic dimension. We have to ask: Why did this story make it into the Bible at this prominent place, presuming that the authors (or “compilers”) saw an important significance in it? Man’s experience was that he was different from other living beings. Animals didn’t talk, didn’t invent tools and didn’t develop “culture” that is in any way comparable to human culture (also this insight changed meanwhile due to new deeper knowledge about other animal species). Why are human so different? And why, even though we are so special, are we not free from suffering but share it with the animals? Explanation 1: God made human with a special intention. Explanation 2: We must have disappointed God so much that he gave up on us. Explanation 3: Maybe once we actually were like the animals, but then we discovered our ability of (self-)consciousness, (self-)awareness and (self-)knowledge and stepped out of our biological niche. Thinking explanation 3 further, we might arrive at conclusions that are meaningful from a modern anthropological perspective: How important is “ecological balance” and “natural harmony” for the biosphere of this planet? Is it really a blessing for humankind to be knowledgeable, or might it turn out as a curse (see, for example, the global environmental destruction as a result of human inventive activity)? Would it be better to remain forever in the default setting, as in “blessed are the ignorant“? No matter what the outcome of such reflections actually is, we see an important difference from the other two alternatives: The construction of meaning from the story is channelled to rational, up-to-date, current state-of-the-art knowledge based reasoning. It leaves room for interpretative change, can be challenged and contested by critique and good argumentation, and appreciates the constructive character of all knowledge.

That’s why religion appears so outdated in enlightened and educated societies. Religious institutions that are built on power hierarchies don’t want to allow space for interpretation. They want people with a limited set of channels to generate meaning. This became especially obvious when the scientific method gained the power and influence that it has today. “Truth” is believed to be found in science, not in dogmatic religions. Therefore, the claim for absolute truth by the church appears nothing but ridiculous or despicable. That’s why many people want to disempower the church as an institution of “truth”. That is understandable, overdue and – given the many lapses and aberrations of institutionalised religions – probably a good idea! However, I think it is important to distinguish carefully between organised religion that is manifested as church or other respective religious institutions and religious spirituality in the sense of a source for orientational knowledge. Then, it is worthwhile to get aware of the epistemological difference between factual knowledge that explains the physical world and its entities, and orientational knowledge that guides normative choices and decisions made by humans as actants in a social community. Who is justified to claim a knowledge domain for oneself? We handed the creation of factual knowledge to the social institution “science” and its methodologies and strategies. The century-long conflict between religion and science arises from the mistaken view that the knowledge domains of science and religion overlap but that only one of them can come to valid conclusions. However, I believe that religion doesn’t compete with science because it is mostly focused on orientational knowledge on normative issues of human behaviour. Therefore, it competes with philosophy or other forms of spirituality as an alternative channel of meaning construction, but not with (natural) sciences. Certainly, orientational knowledge must be fed by factual insights. That’s why, with increasing factual knowledge, our interpretations of orientational narratives (such as the Bible) might change over time. However, discarding sources of orientational knowledge (religions, arts, philosophy) as irrelevant is as dangerous for humanity and humankind as rejecting scientific insights and evidence-based knowledge as foundation for normative conclusions. Realising the constructive character of both of these knowledge realms might serve as a good starting point for a dialogue between them. This “informed” way of meaning-construction might play an important role in the future of mankind – in case there is any…

A Tree of Knowledge

Today, I am a bit euphoric. I think I achieved a major breakthrough in sorting and elaborating my reflections. And all because of an atheist meme on facebook that labeled the Bible, the Quran and the Talmud “fake news” (a political fashion term at the moment). Critical with all “extreme” positions, I had to come up with a proper reply, but the issue turned out to be more complicated. I think I found a good way to explain my point. I present: My tree of knowledge!

Wait a minute… Tree of knowledge? Like the one in the Bible? No. That is a different story. But also yes, somehow. I will come to it later (maybe). Like the one described by René Descartes (“Philosophical works”, Vol.2, transl. John Cottingham et al., Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, p.186)? His tree had three parts: metaphysics as the roots, scientific knowledge of nature (physics) as trunk, and the three main branches medicine, morals and mechanics. Philosophy’s task then was to harvest the fruits of this tree as insight of the world. Its key questions are “What is knowledge?” and “What do we use it for?“. My tree is similar, but – in view of recent insights from biology, psychology, culture studies and constructivism – more sophisticated in the description of roots and trunk, and more up-to-date in the number and constitution of branches. Another famous tree of knowledge was proposed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (“The Tree of Knowledge. Biological roots of human understanding.”, 1987). This, indeed, is a book that everybody (!) should read! It is a key work in the field of constructivism, insightful not only for academics but for everybody who wants to go through daily life mindfully. However, the metaphor of a tree is not particularly illustrated in the book but simply refers to human understanding as a living and evolving network: “We will propose a way of seeing cognition not as a representation of the world ‘out there,’ but rather as an ongoing bringing forth of a world through the process of living itself” (p. 11). Maturana and – even more so – Varela, not only with this work but also with other impacting publications, belong to my most influential thinkers and scientists. Even though I try to avoid their flaw of widely ignoring the philosophical insights of the past 2500 years in their Tree of Knowledge, their insights contributed significantly to the elaboration of my tree of knowledge:

meaningtree

The roots constitute the sources of all our experiences. Everything we know about the world is constructed by our cognitive equipment: senses, central nervous system, brain. Parts of this system are memory, consciousness, emotions and other psychologically observable and explainable features. In simple terms: we observe, process, think, feel, recall and react. Then, we securely know that we are the centre of the universe. All experiences necessarily are made by us from the self-perspective. Nobody can make experiences for someone else. Same as a thought doesn’t exist beyond its being-thought, experience doesn’t exist beyond its being-experienced. The perception of a self (or an ego) inevitably goes along with the definition of everything else as the other. This illusion of separation creates the idea of world as something external. Within this world-space we experience desires and needs that feed our constant fear of non-existence and ceasing-from-existence. We experience many forms of suffering (in the literal form as pain, in the figurative form as unsatisfactoriness) and yearn for safety and security. This list of basic features is certainly incomplete, but I believe it is sufficiently precise to adumbrate the key point: all humans (as long as not physically or mentally disabled) share these features, and all humans build their decisions, viewpoints and their life on this foundation. Agree?

The trunk is the channel through which we process all these experiences in order to manifest them in our being-in-the-world (using Heidegger’s term). Experiencing is a process (for some scholars even an act) that only works in view of an experience background that is present in the experiencer, an active sense-making. This might be the biggest difference to Descartes’ tree of knowledge: It is illusionary to believe that the act of sense-making for all humans is always only scientific, exploiting knowledge of “the real world” (nature). Since Kant and latest since the convincing insights provided by constructivism, there are many more options. First, we all run on a kind of default setting. If not otherwise reflected or mindfully brought into our conscious awareness, the choices and decisions we make are controlled and determined by the cognitive and behavioural patterns acquired since we are born, under strong influence of our emotions, our education and other previous experiences that I like to summarise as the matrix. In this default setting we tend to be selfish, self-centred, vulnerable, manipulable and susceptible for external powers. Then, there is dogmatism and indoctrination: Someone tells us in one or the other form what certain experiences mean and what we have to conclude from them. In the light form, this includes the parental and institutional education at home and at schools. In the more drastic form we can find that in most religious instances (church), in some political systems, and in parts even in science; in short: in all systems that have anything to do with power of some over others (in the widest possible meaning). There are also more conscious and sceptical ways of sense-making: we can deal with observations and experiences empirically by setting them into perspective with other observations and experiences, we can contest them and refine our understanding of them. The most basic tool for this is logic. An important aspect of these strategies to “construct meaning from experience” is that they are more sustainable and stable the more a person is mindful and free in the choice of options.

In order to understand my choice of branches (here: religion, culture, politics, economy, science, technology) it is important to realise that this model applies for both individual humans and social agglomerations at large. Let me start with the societal level. In current societies, these spheres are the most present ones. Almost all societies developed or adopted institutions of organised religion or at least some kind of spirituality, organise themselves in some form of politics, established systems of production, trade and consumption (economy), started investigating nature and society (science) and invented more or less sophisticated tools that make human life easier (technology). Culture might be an outstanding point here, and some might disagree upon its presence in this set of social spheres. What I mean with it here are all the features and characteristics that serve as the identity-giving connecting fabric of a society: language, art, morals, codes of behaviour, Zeitgeist. Different societies express these branches in different fashions and to various extents, both regionally (an Asian society is different from a European one) and temporally (the Greek society of 500BC differs from the contemporary Greek society). From the historical perspective, some ancient branches disappeared while new ones flourished, others dried out or grew stronger. Let’s take, for example, the German tree: It is a completely secular society, so the religion branch is very small. Germans are – especially in view of their horrible history – convinced of their political system and very “political” in the sense that many topics on the political agenda are discussed – the Politics branch is rather strong. The same can be said for the economy branch, even though it is certainly smaller than the US-American economy branch since German are generally quite sceptical with consumption. Science might be one of the biggest branches: We can only know for sure what we have contested and analysed, including nature, art, religion, etc. Everything must be able to stand a critical investigation, otherwise it is either meaningless or wrong. Technology has shaped the German society quite significantly, but – in analogy to economy – people are sceptical with innovation and rather conservative.

There is an ambivalent correlation between the society as a system and its individual members. Each individual contributes to the characteristics of a society, but it is also society that shapes individuals and sets the margin for their self-expression. A religious society will most likely produce religious members. The process of social change and progress, therefore, is usually very slow. However, what is valid for the society at large is also valid for the individual: Everybody develops all branches in one or the other way and to a certain extent. Remember: these reflections are about “constructing meaning from experience”.

Example 1: Some experiences affect our understanding of features of our surrounding (our world construct): We long to understand nature and the world. Depending on the epistemic channel that a person prefers and applies, answers are found in the branch of religion or in science (This is a descriptive statement! It does not evaluate the legitimacy of choosing religion or science to answer questions about the world fabric adequately! This is done elsewhere.).

Example 2: Experiences concerning the fulfilment of needs can either be manifested in economy (for example as materialism), in religiously or spiritually motivated modesty, or in scientific explanations of human biology and psyche.

All parts – roots, trunk, branches – are dynamic and subject of change. Some roots grow deeper and stronger when a person puts a focus on certain types of experiences or when outer conditions (for example, the type of job, or the family situation) draw the person’s attention to particular aspects of life. The channels in the trunk are cultivated and expressed to different extents, too. Children mostly follow their default setting, but during youth and adolescence they discover new strategies for constructing meaning. Some become open-minded empiricists, others indoctrinated religious fanatics (just to be sure: there are also open-minded religious people and dogmatic fanatic empiricists). Once a channel is formed and solidified, it is very difficult to change the setting, yet not impossible. Moreover, it is perfectly possible that many branches co-exist peacefully. A scientist can be outspokenly religious by separating the types of knowledge strictly – empiric physical knowledge into the science field, normative spiritual knowledge into the religion field. It would take an enormous amount of active ignorance to claim that “there can only be scientific knowledge” (as done by atheists) or “there can only be religious belief” (as done by religious fanatics).

We can think of countless examples in what way this metaphor depicts the development and constitution of social spheres like politics and economy as the result of meaning-construction. This would blow up this letter by far too much. Instead, I’d like to draw the attention towards the fourth element in this illustration: the fruits. When a branch flourishes, there are fruits growing that a person or a society has to harvest. A strong economy branch will support wealth and material well-being, but also greed and competition. A strong religion branch will increase the capacity of hope and identification with the community, but also fascism (separating the own beliefs from the others’ beliefs) and dogmatism (for example promoting creationism and denying biological evolution). Some fruits are sweet, others are poisonous or stink. It is these fruits that make people conclude that some branches are more valuable and viable than others, that some branches are better kept small or even cut off while other branches deserve more care and nourishment. Atheists often deny the legitimacy of the religion branch. Anti-capitalists see a social threat in the economy branch. Political reformists and anarchists would like to reshape the politics branch according to their political ideals. Reportedly, there are even “science-deniers”. Very often, the suggested “cures” focus on the materialisations and embodiments of meaning-construction within the realms of the respective branches: Atheists (as in the initial remark) want to defame or ban the historical religious books, anti-capitalists want to abolish money or the monetary system, anarchists aim at freedom from any political leadership. History has proven that forceful and violent attempts to reach these goals will almost always end up in conflict and misery. Try to take away the Bible from a religious Christian, and he will stick to it even more, like a child to exactly that toy that you try to take. It will also not be possible to change that person’s roots. The only sustainable chance is to encourage people to open and use different channels of meaning-construction. If you want to change a religious person, present to him alternative interpretations of worldly phenomena, philosophical ways to reason virtues rather than divine laws, or how meaning of religion changes when church is unmasked as a political rather than a spiritual institution. Don’t expect the religious person to change easily. He will try to change you instead: explaining different conceptualisations of “God”, “loving-kindness” as the core element of religious insight, benevolence and grace of charity as spiritually motivated virtues. Ask yourself first, if your own personal choice of how to construct meaning from experience is always exclusively right! The same can be said in the case of “money”: Is it really money that we should condemn as the root of all evil and the cause of greed and injustice? Or is it because we give it too much meaning?

Many people feel powerless in regard of huge overarching “systems” like church, political leadership, capitalism, technological progress, cultural matrix. They might criticise that my focus on strategies of meaning construction is too individual and idealistically ignoring that institutionalised systems and their power outweigh the impact of individual person belief and knowledge systems. Maybe, maybe not. I agree that a heavy precondition for my reflections is a certain degree of freedom of choice. People living in tyrannies might not have a chance to change the fashion of the politics branch. Capitalism is so deeply entrenched in people’s life that it doesn’t really give them a chance to choose their lifestyle. People in the poorest country on earth face such urgent existential problems that questions of meaning-construction turn out unaffordable luxury for them. However, most of us do have a choice. Systems only have power over us when we give it to them, which is mostly by not taking full advantage of our capacity to choose how we construct meaning from experience. Mindless people are easier to control than people with a clear and well-reasoned, well-informed worldview. Naturally, there will always be those people with deeper insights and a wider variety of choices (those with a thicker trunk) and those with rather limited possibilities (with thinner trunks, easily bendable in the wind of opposition). Here, we need communication and discourse on all levels (family-internal, among friends, in social groups and public in general) in order to plant seeds in each other to refine and sophisticate our meaning-construction strategies. We need to make sure, of course, that it is the better argument (in terms of logic consistency and viability) that wins, not the most powerful position or the most popular. Then, sooner or later, some branches decay while others flourish or new ones sprout. Again, we see that the picture fits perfectly!

There are several possible streams of thought from here on. Some of them will certainly be the subject of future letters I will write here:

  • Education – How can home and school education support a child or teenager to identify and use various channels of meaning-construction mindfully? How can we develop more options for ourselves to deal properly with our “root problems” (suffering, desire, self, etc.)?
  • Culture – What does this scheme imply for intercultural communication? What does it mean for cultural change in general?
  • Buddhism – This picture fits so perfectly into Buddhist philosophy that an article on that relation is almost inevitable!
  • Constructivism – I believe it is worthwhile pulling the constructivist elements of this model into awareness. We can learn many meaningful lessons for daily life from it!
  • Science and Technology – As part of my profession, I believe that this metaphor helps enlightening some of the mechanisms that support scientism and technocracy in our society. If we want to deal with emergent problems like climate change and progressive emotional dullness (a la Konrad Lorenz) successfully, it might be necessary to pay attention to the patterns implied in here.

For now, I’d just like to refer the reader to one of the most important and meaningful speeches ever given (in my humble opinion): David Foster Wallace’s “This is water“.

Research Portfolio

I am a researcher at University, currently as “Postdoctoral Research Fellow” at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, Taiwan. I am working on a project entitled “Ethical and Social Implications of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in Taiwan”. Many people are not very familiar with this kind of research. Therefore, I’d like to explain a little more about it.

My research interests are situated between the cornerstones (blue boxes) “Science and Technology”, “Philosophy” and “Society”.

portfolio

I understand “Science and Technology” (S&T) as a social, academic and political endeavour that aims at facilitating and supporting the development of artifacts and infrastructures that have the potential to enrich and increase the quality of life. This ranges from “basic research”, applied sciences and engineering to product development and industrial production, covering all enactors and drivers of technological progress. “Philosophy“, from my point of view, is the attempt to reflect on metaphysical, epistemological and ontological questions on the one hand, and to elaborate principles and reasoning strategies for what is “good” and “right” on the other hand. I understand Philosophy as a down-to-earth and highly practical approach rather than a purely intellectual and academic discipline. The “Society” is both target group and study object of my research: the evaluation of the impact of S&T on the society and the societal background of scientific and technological activity on the one hand, and the exploitation of these findings for a socially healthy and sound progress. While “Science” and “Philosophy” can be understood as academic fields, “society” is a term that describes an entity of our lifeworld. On purpose I chose not to call it “Sociology” since I have no educational background in this field, whereas I can call myself “Scientist” (PhD in Chemistry/Nanosciences) and “Ethicist” (Master in Applied Ethics).

How are these three fields connected (green boxes)? Accompanying technological progress (including “science” as its foundation) with research on societal and environmental implications is a matter of “Technology Assessment” (TA). Historically, it developed from a rather technological or economic tool (e.g. analysing the components of a technological artefact concerning their probability to malfunction and risking a loss of the object or harm for someone or something) into a political and sociological tool that aims at taking the “larger picture” of technological development into account. It was highly promoted and extended by the academic field of “Science, Technology and Society” (STS), a sociological discipline. An important precondition is the acceptance of social constructivism as predominant driver of development, instead of technological determinism. The social constructivist approach allows to intervene any development process and guide it into the “right” direction. If progress was deterministic it would be a meaningless endeavour.

In the “Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics” we find this definition:

Technology Assessment (TA) is a scientific interactive and communicative process that aims to contribute to the formation of public and political opinion on societal aspects of science and technology.

Let me explain it a little more detailed. The “object” that TA is working on is “science and technology”. This includes all parts of the development chain, from design and planning via research, fabrication, product development, marketing and sales to consumption, application, and finally disposal and/or recycling. TA understands itself as “accompanying research on societal aspects” of S&T, which include ethical and also legal aspects (all summarized as “ELSI”). Furthermore, it is important to point out that it is an academic discipline that is devoted to scientific methodologies and procedures. Institutional TA can be found at universities or in independent research facilities as well as in the form of “offices” that perform professional TA for governments (e.g. the Office for Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag, Büro für Technikfolgenbewertung beim Deutschen Bundestag) or corporations as a kind of science consulting. Bringing together expertise from various fields such as science, industry, politics, social sciences, Philosophy and jurisprudence, its nature is highly interdisciplinary. It is often highlighted that TA is “communicative” because the generation of orientational knowledge  necessarily needs exchange of information among experts, a solution-oriented debate and the communication of conclusions, strategies and/or recommendations to the relevant stakeholders, decision-makers and – in some cases – the general public. The public is both a stakeholder and a target group: Representatives of public interest groups participate in TA processes and debates (e.g. patient groups in medical topics or environmental activists in projects with potential environmental impact); and at the same time the whole effort is undertaken in order to facilitate a socially sound and healthy development. The ultimate goal is the contribution to a sustainable development of society and its environment by creating a knowledge and insight base for efficient governance and policy-making. One extreme viewpoint would be that TA blocks innovation by influencing the decision-making with doubtful concerns and conservative fear-mongering. The other extreme would then be to take TA as an acceptance creator: Convincing the public and politicians that a new technology (e.g. Genetics or Nanotechnology) has great potential benefits, and creating a positive image of this technology in order to unleash its full potential. Certainly, TA is neither of this. From a more balanced point of view, TA aims at serving as an “early warning” against possible side-effects and risks of S&T development on the one hand, and at recognizing potentials and benefits of new technologies and exploring strategies to optimally harvest chances on the other hand.

The role of Philosophy in this approach is mostly manifested as “Ethics“. It means the “study of what is good and/or right” and has a tradition that dates back to the Ancient Greek Philosophers in Europe and Confucius, Laozi and Buddha (as the most prominent representatives) in Asia (6th century BC). It is useful to distinguish descriptive ethics (the study of what certain people or societies believed in certain times, their value systems and worldviews), prescriptive ethics (the “core” of Ethics, elaborating the normative rules we call “morals”) and “meta ethics” (the “ethics of ethics”, reflections on purpose and performance of Ethics). In recent years a new boom of ethics could be observed under the umbrella term “Applied Ethics” (or sometimes “Practical Ethics”). Most prominent examples in this field are bioethics, medical ethics, research ethics, business ethics, profession ethics, media ethics and political ethics.The abovementioned aspects of modern TA approaches such as identifying risks and other problematic concerns, defining what are “benefits” and for whom, classifying and weighing arguments and values, and foreseeing in which way certain decisions might conflict with particular moral values, require a reasonable and strong normative framework within which debates can be held or decisions can be made.  In this respect ethics is a fundamental and crucial element of modern TA concepts such as participatory TA, constructive TA or Parliamentary TA. The role of Ethics in a TA debate is primarily the moderation of the interdisciplinary debate and the identification of argumentation lines, fallacies, contradictions (and similarities), logic or formal mistakes, etc. Different stakeholders speak “different languages” that are coloured and shaped by their respective discipline and professional environment (e.g. when a scientist speaks of “freedom” he might mean something different than the lawyer speaking of “freedom”). An ethicist sorts and interprets the arguments according to the established ethical principles (e.g. deontology, consequentialism, contractarianism, virtue ethics, etc.). Ideally, after a debate in which all viewpoints could be exchanged and discussed, a conclusion can be derived on the basis of a set of values that the group agreed upon. TA doesn’t provide stakeholders and decision-makers with recommendations like “Do A to achieve B.”, but with arguments of the form “If you consider doing A, take into account that B might occur which affects a value C in a certain way.”. The value C can be characterized by one or more of these ethical dimensions, for example principles of justice, responsibility, autonomy, freedom, equality, security, health, etc., the action A is one of the elements in the development chain from scientific research via product development and marketing, regulation and policy-making up to application and consumption. The possible effect B that might occur is either a risk or, when supposed to be “positive”, a benefit. Again, the input from normative sciences (Ethics) is necessary for identifying those risks and benefits by compiling the values that determine if an effect is rather a risk or a benefit.

With the narrower but still wide frame of these areas of S&T research we can go further into detail. I regard my research as a contribution to S&T-related governance and policy-making, providing “orientational knowledge” that helps decision-makers to reflect the important matters of the decisions they are responsible for on a solid knowledge base. A term that is often stressed in this case is “sustainability“. I promote a holistic idea of sustainability that includes not only economic and societal stability and wealth, but also environmental health and global balance. Modern S&T activities have, in many ways, a global character. Not only are the enactors of scientific and technological progress internationally connected in networks and collaborations, but many of the wanted and unwanted effects of technology impact the entire globe rather than a locally confined area of it. This also gives TA and the reflection on ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) a highly intercultural character. Different cultures with different legal systems and different worldviews and value systems might come to different evaluations of risks and benefits, set different priorities in ethical conflicts, or require different measures when defining the implications of “sustainability”.

Here – and this is the central theme of my research interest (red circle) – the interculturality aspect takes a significant turn: I believe that there is no (one) “global” solution for the conflicts and problems that go along with the development of S&T under the paradigm of uncertainty and post-positivism. Instead, it is important to look into the social and cultural specificities of the particular cultural realm. Embedding political decision-making on S&T-related issues, fed by TA and related knowledge sources, into the context of worldviews, mentalities and the “social reality” of a particular “society” (e.g. a nation, or a union of nations like the EU) can contribute positively to the goal of sustainability. The principles and ideas that are exploited for the ethical evaluation of human attitude, behaviour and activity (we can also say: the metaphysical foundations of morality) vary from culture to culture with the “Western” (European, North American) one as the predominant and the “Asian” as the second most prominent. Currently, the “non-western world” is confronted with both the effects of (characteristically western) S&T progress and their (also predominantly western) political and legal frameworks. However, the values and worldviews that underlie governance principles as well as laws and regulations – in some but not all cases – collide with different value settings in those non-western countries. Culturally specific ethical and societal foundations and their application in S&T policy surely facilitate a more sustainable development than the inconsiderate copy of methodologies, principles, guidelines, etc. of another culture.

I’d like to specify my research interests further by outlining my particular competences and expertise (purple boxes). The scientific field that I am most familiar with is Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies since I did (lab) research in that field (nanostructured surface patterning by soft lithography). I also feel familiar with closely related fields such as biotechnology, genetic engineering, and energy-related matters. In the field of “Applied Ethics” I focus on science ethics and more society-focused technology ethics, but also medical ethics and bioethics if required. My contribution to TA comes from the side of accompanying ELSI studies rather than the “technical” sociological methodology. The cultural realm that I know most of and that I currently focus on is East and South-East Asia, in particular Taiwan, China, Korea, Japan (“Confucian societies”) and those influenced by Buddhism. Therefore, I acquired knowledge in Buddhist Ethics, its foundations and applications. As pointed out before, I put a focus on the specificities of particular cultures in a global comparison of cultural realms. This is an endeavour of “comparative philosophy” that analyses schools of thought and sets them into perspective to others, by this enabling the international and intercultural communication of knowledge, insights and ideas.