The Religion of Technology
The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention
DAVID NOBLE speaking at Seattle
Sponsored by the Ernest Becker Foundation 19feb98
Transcribed by Paul Goettlich
page is incomplete, but we feel that it should be read.
Consider the purchase of Dr. Noble's book,
which this lecture was named after:
The Religion of Technology
Updated: 23 May 2007
Listen to MP3 of lecture h:mm:ss Introduction 0:05:16 Lecture 1:01:40 Q&A 0:23:50
I have transcribed about 23 minutes of Dr. Noble's 1-hour lecture so far and little editing has been done
O Fortuna from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (1934), portrays the appropriate mood. (MP3 audio file)
Richard Seed (36-second MP3 file 74kb) explaining how "man" was created by God with "almost as much knowledge and almost as much power as God. Cloning and the reprogramming of DNA is the first serious step in becoming one with God. "Who Exactly is Richard Seed?"
Also see Transhumanism: Humanity 2.0 - Wilson Quarterly Autumn 2003 1sep03
Thank you Neil, it's a pleasure to be here, and especially I want to thank Neil and the Ernest Becker Foundation for introducing me to the work of Ernest Becker, because I was not familiar with it. At the University of Rochester, Norman O. Brown left the year I arrived no cause and effect there, but I never really got to know him. Of course I knew his work, and I knew Thomas Saz's work, with whom Becker studied, but I had never read Ernest Becker's work. And Neil said some material alerting me to it, and also describing Becker's career, again an itinerant career. And I had, in reading about him a real sense of identity with him. His work and his life were studies in courage.
In The Denial of Death, which I read before coming up here, a very powerful and provocative work, Becker is talking about humanity's curse, so to speak, mainly its knowledge of death knowledge of its own death, and knowledge of the terror of its creation, as he puts it. And the efforts, conscious and not, that human beings engage in to deny that horror, the horror of creation. And he describes several ways in which that denial manifests itself. One is through an avoidance, through an adsorption into a collective, ritualized, and institutionalized denial of death. And then another way is through a heroic (a favorite word of Becker's), a heroic transcendence of death or at least the illusion of the transcendence of death.
Now having read his work, I realize that my own book, this one, The Religion of Technology, is really an example, an illustration of this second effort to deny the reality and horror of death, and in a sense to defy it through an heroic effort to transcend our creatureliness, another word he uses, either through our works, or through an effort to achieve immortality by extending human life, longevity. As Woody Allen puts it, he doesn't want to achieve immortality through his works, he wants to achieve immortality by never dying.
And it's funny and true. And that, submerged in many of our activities, is just such an impulse. So, what I discovered, what I'm looking at, is one particular expression of this effort at transcendence, this effort at the denial of death and the transcendence of our mortal condition.
Now, what I'm looking at in this book . . . the burden of the book is several. The title, The Religion of Technology, is a juxtaposition of two words, religion and technology, that are rarely conjoined. In our culture, we tend to view these realms as quite removed from one another, and indeed as opposites.
So, the burden, the primary burden is to show that they are not opposites and that they have in fact always been intertwined. And by religion, i'm being very specific, I'm not speaking metaphorically, and the title The Religion of Technology unfortunately has sort of a double meaning. I don't mean that technology is like a religion, because we hear that a lot, that it has its own arcane rituals and priesthood, etc. That isn't what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is literally the religious inspiration and impulse behind the Western technological enterprise.
And in fact, and finally a reviewer has recognized this, there's a review by David Landis in the L.A. Times book review last week; I tried to subdue this, actually; in the book I tried to explain, why in the West, this technological enterprise took off, and nowhere else. And what I'm suggesting is that the Western technological project is just the reverse side of what I'm calling the religion of technology. They're really two sides of the same coin.
Now let me explain what I'm talking about specifically. I'm not talking about spirituality, I'm talking about the Christian mythology, which is, as Becker describes a lot in his book, a classic case of transference and the denial of death through various forms of heroism.
In Christianity, the distinction between what is God and what is man is blurred. For the Jews, there was no confusion about what was God and what was man.
Now, the Jews were the chosen people, which meant that they had to bear the burden of the law of morality, and it was for that that they were chosen. But except in some excesses, say in the book of Daniel, there's very little suggestion (in fact quite the contrary) that human beings can become divine. And in fact, the Genesis story is a warning against such hubris.
The Christians put a different spin on it, I guess we'd say today. They blurred the distinction between the divine and the human, embodied in Christ, God incarnate, and especially in the resurrection of Christ, the overcoming of death. And the core myth is the story of a recovery of our rightful birthright as angels, that we were born humankind, Adam in the image likeness to God, and participated in divinity.
Adam had a share in creation, the naming of the beasts, had dominion over creation, had a share of divine knowledge, knowledge of nature if not moral knowledge, and also, and most important for our story, Adam was immortal. We have this on many authorities, but especially on the authority of St. Augustine.
Adam was immortal.
Alas, with the fall, that original perfection, that participation in divinity was lost, or at least diminished. And the Christian project is the recovery of that lost divinity. That we are Gods. But we've lost sight of our divinity, and the task and the project of Christian redemption and salvation is the restoration of our original creation the restoration of our divinity. That's where the title of the book comes from.
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What I'm suggesting in this book is that the Western technological project has been an expression of this Christian project to recover our divinity. And therefore the essence of this project, which appears to be the most worldly of activities, is actually other worldly.
Now what I'd like to do is, very quickly, go through an overview of the history of this, and also give you some illustrations, and also bring it up to the 20th-century. The book is in two parts; The first-half covers the last thousand years, and then the second half is contemporary, looking at the hallmark technologies of our age.
So, what I'm trying to do is not only show historically how religion suffused the technological project, and in fact, propelled it, but also to suggest that it still does.
So, if we go back and look at the classical period and the first millennium of Christianity, we see that the arts, the useful arts, mechanical arts, what we now call technology, was actually disdained by the elite and worldly as humble. Also there are associations with manual labor and with women which also contributed to the disdain with which scholars looked at them.
But more important, they were identified as strictly activities of the fallen state. Augustine in The City of God, describes the many trades and crafts, and also, he does this with great respect. But at the same time he emphasizes again and again that these activities are but the solace that we have in our fallen state, the necessities that we need to survive. But they have absolutely no significance as far as the main Christian project, which is to recover our perfection that is to be redeemed from the fall.
And for Augustine, of course, that requires grace. In the first Christian millennium there were other human activities that were identified as means, vehicles of recovering perfection a pious life; a righteous life; and especially with the growth of monasticism, an ascetic life, that is the renunciation of the world, a renunciation of the flesh, an attempt to take essentially a step toward an angelic existence. This is very powerful in the first two centuries of Christianity and continued especially throughout the monastic movement throughout the Middle Ages.
In the ninth century, and for reasons that we don't understand really, and there's been some suggestion why this happened, the mechanical arts, again these most humble and worldly activities, became, for the first time invested with spiritual significance, became identified as yet another means by which human beings can recover their original divinity.
And if we go back in the history of the period, the first place we see this is in the work of Johannes Scotus Erigena (815-877 AD) [possible reference: http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/phil/philo/phils/scotus.html] , who was one of the most famous philosophers of the early Middle Ages. He was the court philosopher of Charles the Bald, the grandson of Charlemagne. And he was the first person to use the term "mechanical arts" as a generic term the way we use "technology". He was the first person to dignify the arts by including them in his compendium of human knowledge that is equivalent to the liberal arts. No one had done this before. And most important to our purposes, he was the first person to identify these activities as having spiritual significance.
He said, "All men by nature possess natural arts. But because on account of the punishment for the sin of the first man, they're obscured in the souls of men. In teaching, we do nothing but recall to our present understanding the same arts which are stored in our memory. The practical arts," he said, "are man's link with the divine. Their cultivation a means to salvation., "
Now this was a revolution in the ideology of technology. For the first time and this is a very influential writer we see technology and religion conjoined. And very explicitly, that by practicing the arts and by that he meant sciences as well as the arts; knowledge of nature we can take a step backward, we can take a step towards the recovery of what we were; what Adam knew.
Erigena's work, as I said, was tremendously influential, especially within the monastic communities and the Benedictines, and especially the Cistercians, as you might know, were the real pioneers of what's often called the Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages - waterpower for example.
And Hugh of St. Victor, in his classification of learning, followed Erigena, and likewise elevated and dignified the arts as never before. He said, this is Hugh of St. Victor, an Augustinian monk, "This, then, is what the arts are concerned with, this is what they intend, namely to restore within us the divine likeness . . ." (Didascalicon II,1) That is, not to provide for our survival, not to provide for our comfort that's important but, the essence of their significance is to restore our divine likeness which has been obscured.
The monks added to another dimension to this project of recovery. In the 12th century, the abbot Joachim de Fiore (1155 - 1202), a Cistercians abbot from Calabria revived Christian millenarianism, which was quite vibrant in the early centuries of Christianity and those condemned to the church from the fourth century on as subversive. And millenarianism, in that early form was essentially a passive expectation. And Millennium, as I'm sure you know, comes from the last book of the New Testament the book of revelation. That's the only place its mentioned. The Millennium being 1000 years the period following the return of the messiah in which the Saints the righteous, the fallen martyrs will be redeemed to reign with Christ for 1000 years.
The expectation of the Millennium was palpable in the first centuries of Christianity. But again, it was passive. It was in expectation that it would happen, that the righteous, especially those who had practiced asceticism, had already taken towards an angelic existence, that they would be participating in what's called the first resurrection, and recover their angelic, divine existence. That didn't happened. And after awhile, people got tired of it.
What Fiore did was historicize millenarianism and make it an active millenarianism. He had a vision reading the Book of Revelation. History was revealed to him having three parts: the age of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. And human beings, through their own efforts, can prepare for, and that way, helped to bring about the Millennium. So it wasn't exactly passive expectation, it was active.
And Fiore's prophetic view of history, became the most influential prophetic system in the West up until Karl Marx. Very few people know of Joachim de Fiore. But his legacy was enormous and right down to the Third Reich. That's what it's about the third age, 1000 years. Okay?
It was the mendicants the Friars, the Franciscans in particular who picked up where the monks left off. And especially with the millenarian outlook, that it wasn't that the arts merely would help individuals recover the divinity. Now there's going to be an event in history the return of the messiah when the righteous would be resurrected. And by developing the arts, we can bring that moment closer.
The first proponent of that view was Roger Bacon, a devout millenarian Joachimanite millenarian. And it was Bacon who argued that we should develop the arts and sciences. He told the Popes, he wrote to the Popes, that we have to prepare ourselves the time of the Antichrist. And we have to defeat the Antichrist by the use of science and technology. And that's the way we'll bring, usher in Millennium.
And again, Bacon insists that the sons of Adam, as the called them, are merely recovering what had been known in the beginning.
So we're not learning anything new. We're recovering what we used to know the same thing that Erigena is talking about.
The Friars, and spreading the gospel around the world as missionaries, passed the baton of spiritual men, as Joachim de Fiore described them the people who would leave the transition, the vanguard of humanity towards the Millennium. It was passed time to the explorers. The best example of that was Christopher Columbus another Joachimite millenarian.
People wonder how he did it. He had such chutzpah. He just sailed into the ocean. In the story goes: the mariner's who were with him were very afraid. Had he get his courage? Well, he believed that he was sent, and in fact Roger Bacon had indicated that to discover of paradise the terrestrial paradise, as Columbus called the world, Eden would come from Spain.
Columbus wrote to Isabel and Ferdinand, making it very clear that it wasn't the mariner's arts that led to his success, but that it had been prophesied. He said and he calls his effort the enterprise of Jerusalem:
"God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which he spoke about in the apocalypse of St. John, after having spoken of that through the mouth of Isaiah. And he showed me the spot where to find it."
Columbus, again, identified the new world as the terrestrial paradise and he symbolized this restored dominion by compulsively naming everything, just as Adam had named everything.
From the explorers this expectation was passed on to the Renaissance philosophers, who advanced the arts: Raymond Lull (SP?), Arnold of Villanova, John of Rubus Isa (SP?), and especially the great Magi: Agrippa, Paracelsus. All of them were inspired by the same mythology.
The development of the arts would help us bring about the Millennium and restore our perfection. Again, the orientation is other-worldly.
Johann [Valentin Andreζ], in his utopia, Christianopolis (1619), puts it, "The arts are encouraged not always because the necessity demands it, but in order to the human soul might have some means by which that little speck of divinity remaining us may shine brightly."
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The arts, he maintained, allowed men to return to themselves who they really were. Again, their original birthright.
The Rosicrucian manifestoes, which really led to the scientific revolution, and some people believe that Andreζ wrote them, resound with the same conviction.
They proclaimed that God has revealed to us, in these latter days, that is, the days before the Millennium, and more perfect knowledge, both of his son and of nature. He has raised man imbued with great wisdom, who might renew again the word renew all arts and reduce them all to perfection.
God has certainly and most assuredly concluded to send a grant to the world before her end, which presently shall ensue. Such a truth light, life and glory as the first man Adam had, which he lost in paradise. Same story.
The Rosicrucian's influence on the continent they were persecuted, with their main influence was actually in England in the 17th-century. And the greatest figure, really, in the history of the story, and the most influential, was Francis Bacon, who was greatly inspired by the Rosicrucians and by this expectation. In his great magnum opus, The Great Instauration (1620), it's about the restoration of perfection. Other frontispiece is a sailing ship like Columbus, but also a passage from Daniel that people will move to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased. That's the signs that the Millennium is at hand.
Bacon insisted again and again that the purpose of developing science and the arts was the recovery of our original divinity. He said, "It is not the pleasure of curiosity, nor the quiet of resolution, nor the raising of the spirit, nor victory both the wit, nor faculty of speech, or lucre of profession, nor ambition of honor or fame, nor enablement for business that are the true ends of knowledge. But it is a restitution and reinvesting of man to the sovereignty and power which he had in his first state of creation. For man by the fall, fell at the same time from his state of innocence and from his dominion over the creative things. Both these losses can even in this life be partially repaired. Before by a religion and faith, the latter by the arts and sciences.
The Bacon followed by the so-called Baconians Samuel Hartley, Duret and others who are the foremost promoters of technology they were profoundly millenarian in the 17th-century, especially the English Civil War period, was a period in which the expectation of the Millennium was palpable and was written about at every level of society. King James wrote in many commentaries on the Book of Revelation. And it really became an elite expectation as well as in ideology of the disenfranchised, as Norman Cohen has suggested in his wonderful work.
The Royal Society, which became the fulfillment of the Baconian project, is also a reflection of this expectation. Robert Boyle, one of the great figures around whom many of the so-called virtuosi coalesced, wrote often he devoted his life, by the way, to the study of God. He used to work in the laboratory on Sundays a form of worship; lab-oratory; work on prayer. He became a celibate very early on he was not cleric to devote his life to Sisyphean love, as he put it. Okay?
This whole life was devoted to the worship of God. And he also dwell upon the blessed state to come. He wrote to some of his colleagues who were worried about will happen with the Millennium. He says, and talking about what he called the great renovation of the world:
"It is likely that as our faculties will in the future blessed state be enlarged and heightened, so will our knowledge also be."
Boyle was convinced, of course, that he was going to be among the elect to rein with Christ, and that the hard-won knowledge that he had gathered while he was in his mortal condition would be enhanced after the Millennium.
Isaac Newton still physics, but primarily he was a theologian. He spent the bulk of his life entire life trying to recover the original knowledge that human beings had. And he insisted that he never discovered anything new. It was just recovering what we have lost. He devoted enormous labors to the study of ancient religions so that he could study of only scripture but all sorts of ancient texts to try and get some clues. He saw himself as a prophet. He was born on Christmas Day and I think that added a bit to the headiness. The Seventh-day Adventist to this day worship Newton as a prophet.
Newton spent a lot of time trying to figure out when the Millennium was going to occur. He had to keep the secret and believe that he would be among what he called the Sons of the Resurrection.
One of the most explicit statements about this expectation was by Joseph Glanville, who was one of the founders of the Royal Society and one of its foremost propagandists. He wrote a wonderful book on the vanity of dogmatizing. And the first chapter of the book is entitled "What the Man Was." And this is biblical exegesis with a vengeance reading between the lines of Genesis.
What the Man Was, meaning what did Adam really know?
"All the faculties of this copy of divinity" again, and the image-likeness of God "were as perfect as beauty and harmony in idea. The senses the soul's windows were without any spot or opacity. Adam needed no spectacles. The acuteness of his natural optics showed him most of the celestial magnificence and bravery without a Galileo's tube" he didn't need a telescope. "His naked eyes could reach nearly as much of the upper world as we with all the advantages of the arts. His knowledge was completely built upon the certain extemporary notice of his comprehensive unerring faculties, causes our hidden night and obscurity from us, which were all sun to him. While man knew no sin he was ignorant of nothing else."
So Glanville argues that we have to develop the arts to approximate again and to try to recover what the man was. That's the project.
In the 18th and 19th centuries we see the same expectation expressed by the greatest scientists of the age, notably Joseph Priestley, a fervent millenarian the co-discoverer of oxygen. Priestley was convinced that the French Revolution was a sure sign he read his book of Revelation, which sort of the Michelin Guide to the millennium. And there was, the French Revolution was clearly the sign that the millennium was at hand. And he wrote to John Adams about this. And Adams wrote to Jefferson and said, "What's with Priestley?"
Priestley was not alone. Receive the same spirit in one of the other giants of the period a little later Michael Faraday, the father of electromagnetism. He was a Sandemanian, a very rigorous Christian sect, and a millenarian. And again, identified his scientific activity as essentially a spiritual quest, as did [James] Clerk Maxwell, the mathematician who reduced Faraday's work to mathematical terms. Clerk Maxwell used to write his own prayers every day. And they resound the same expectation.
The real major group in the 18th century to carry on this was the Freemasons. The Freemasons have their roots in the Rosicrucians. And they were the greatest proponents of only now call technology. They invented engineering; the early institutions engineering in England and France; engineering education. It was the Freemasons who set up the Ιcole Polytechnique. In the United States it was the Freemasons like Benjamin Franklin, [BG Robert] von Rensselaer, Robert Fulton, who pioneered the Industrial Revolution in the United States as well as engineering education.
So the passed the batons, so to speak, to the new Adam the engineer. If you read the Freemason's constitutions again that resonates with the refrains of redemption the first line, "Adam, our first parent, created in the image of God, the great architect of the universe, must have had the liberal arts, particularly geometry written on his heart, for ever since the fall we find the principles of its in the hearts of his offspring..."
"Masonry. Hail masonry, thou craft divine, glory of earth and heaven revealed."
Now, in United States this expectation really reached its height we should remember that the United States is probably the most religious country on earth. It is really the embodiment of the millenarian adventure, from start to finish. And it isn't over yet. and that the Industrial Revolution in the United States took place in the context of the second great awakening. And as the great historian of American religion, Perry Miller put it, the spirit of perfectionism of religious revival was a sibling to the perfectionism of technology. They were of a piece.
And there are many expressions of this in the United States, but I think the most important, and in a sense the most explicit is that of the work of Edward Bellamy, the great utopian at the end of the 19th-century. And if you read his utopian novel Looking Backward, again, it resounds with the same refrains of the recovery of perfection, the return of mankind to its original divinity through the development of the arts and sciences.
Now, with the late 19th-century and, say, up to the middle of the 20th, the idea of, the more secular idea of progress and infinite progress for a while overshadowed this millenarian expectation. It was always there. But it was somewhat subdued.
In the postwar period, in the 20th century, the millenarian expectation and the apocalyptic outlook, which is a corollary of it, returned with a vengeance with the explosion of the atomic bomb.
Suddenly the end of the world became palpable again. We see the endurance of the ideology when a Jew like Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project, when he had to name the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, he calls it Trinity, which has no meaning outside of Christian mythology. And when asked by Leslie Grove some years later why he used to name Trinity, he said, "I was thinking of poem by John Donne, the 17th-century metaphysical poet, all about the restoration of perfection, the first and the last Adam."
In the context of the postwar period in this apocalyptic framework, there's a quickening of the pace of this expectation. And also, beginning with the power revealed in the atomic bomb, a display of human being's God-likeness. They now discovered the key to the creation of the universe and were using it to their own ends. In the atomic scientists and have a chapter on them in this book were always referring to themselves as gods.
It's not accidental that the hallmark technologies of the 20th century really hearken back, as Lewis Mumford argued sometime ago, to the 17th century that if we look at the late 19th in early 20th centuries, technology is very prosaic bridges, railroads, telegraph.
But in the postwar period, the main technologies are really rooted in 17th-century expectation. For example: if we look at space manned space flight. Space, of course used to be called heaven. Manned space flight is the ascent of the Saints. Okay?
Sort of a mechanical rapture.
The Saints are joining Christ by mechanical means.
The dream and it was called the somnium the dream of [Johannes] Kepler in the 17th-century of going to the moon and finding there paradise, somewhat above so it wasn't overtaken by the flood. This was the expectation. Kepler was not alone. Wilkins, others in the 17th-century had the same belief.
If we look at the 20th century, the pioneers of manned space flight [Konstantin] Tsiolkowsky, in Russia, was a disciple of Nicolae Fedorov, a Russian Orthodox mystic who believed that the destiny of human beings was to recover their divinity, to become one of God, by assuming command over the universe. Which could only be achieved through getting out there. And Tsiolkowsky, who was a utopian, wrote extensively he's the pioneer of modern rocketry, the science of rocketry that the purpose of manned space flight was, again, to become one with God, or a much like the Heaven's Gate folks down in San Diego. And let me just say, just emphasize that, everything they did the heavenly sign, leaving their vehicles, their earthly vehicles is mainstream stuff. It's a real serious mistake to dismiss what they're doing as fringe. Because there's a very, very small step between what they were doing and what these people are talking about.
Wernher von Braun, the lapsed Nazi who became head of the manned space flight program here in United States, was a born-again Christian. He came to the United States, converted, appropriately enough, at Fort Bliss TX. [He] spend the rest of his life is a very outspoken Christian. He spoke at Billy Graham rallies.
NASA doesn't really talk about this. And in fact the historians of the space program don't even know about it. It's really intriguing.
Von Braun was very explicit. The argued that the purpose...
Let me just read this to you.
"Only man," he wrote, "was burdened with being an image of God cast into the form of an animal. And only man has been bestowed with the soul which enables him to cope with the internal. If man is alpha and omega, that it is profoundly important for religious reasons that the travel to other worlds, other galaxies. For it may be man's destiny to assure immortality, not only for his race, but even of the life-spark itself."