Why Does Technology Need Metaphysics?

Rangga K. Mahaswa

Head of Metaphysics and Technology
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The philosophical discourse on technology cannot be ended simply by providing evidence of technological advantages for human evolution. It is notable the technological revolution and human evolution are inextricable, and, later we will show, with metaphysics. Both of them co-endeavor to define the meaning of humanity regardless of the on-going debate of it. While human beings eagerly wish to embark on intergalactic journeys, invent new life-forms-like, such as cyborgs; create artificial realities; and establish new technological worlds ‒which ultimately could reach a singularity of technology, their understanding on the human nature is transformed as well. Those are the epic and vital side of technology.

However, in the period when we nearly cannot distance ourselves from technology, we chiefly assume technology as mere existence. It lies in front of us and only become unnoticeable entities reproduced massively. Quite distinct from it, in fact, a technology originally refers to the Greek word, namely techne (τέχνη) ‒ meaning: art, expertise, handwork, or a technique and method in making something. As civilization grows, we can see we forget its roots, from something calling for care to ready-made devices not demanding any non-utility insight. I do not have any intention to argue for one side, yet I believe our understanding of this shift is worthy to be the guidance to explore the fundamental question regarding the being of technology. Providing that we are agreed technology is essential in defining humanity, it would be such negligence if we do not pursue it.

To answer the question, nevertheless, we are forced to deal with another question first, namely the question on the urgency of the question itself, or to be paraphrased, “does technology require a discourse on metaphysics[i] as the study of being?” Probably, for being amazed by the rapid development of technology, some people argue against it. For them, technology is no longer a form of metaphysical tales, but a form of concrete inherent material presenting both physically and consistently. In the absence of metaphysics, technology could independently advance, so why bother? It is where positivism or instrumentalism stands.

Positivism strongly rejects metaphysics as it can lead science to a bunch of meaningless and endless question-answers’ activities. Moreover, it does not necessarily affect the advancement of science. For them, therefore, metaphysics is dispensable and science is free-value. Another weaker side is demonstrated by Karl Popper with his falsificationism. He argues we can accept metaphysics as long as it is empirically falsifiable. However, for me, positivism and Popper’s standard are too demanding and overlook the significant facet of metaphysics. For, although mostly, there is no empirical test is carried out; with its rational dimension, we can exhaust metaphysics as an optic to criticize the development of science itself.

In a similar fashion, technology does require metaphysics; there is also a question of independent standing of technology. However, as opposed to science, the philosophy of technology restricts itself merely in the domain of practical knowledge so as to give a critical evaluation of fundamental issues concerning technology. Furthermore, metaphysics should not be perceived as a futile pursuit to answer only the essence of ‘something’ but also the issues of reality, space, time, causality, existence, and, even, ‘Being’. Metaphysics, therefore, plays an essential role to bridge technological reality and technological use with the structure of reality itself. Doing Metaphysic with respect to technology, thus, is not only about speculation but also about being radical, critical, and comprehensive.

Let’s set some examples of how it works. Martin Heidegger[ii], one of the foremost thinkers in the philosophy of technology, contends that technology is more than an act of employing tools, and technology itself is not merely a tool. Technology is the way in which we establish contacts with our life-world (Lebenswelt). In this sense, technology should not be apprehended as a matter of creating something, yet as techne, a form of revealing the truth (Aletheia), the bringing forth of something out of itself. For instance, when an empu (blacksmith) makes keris (Javanese blade), meaning at that time, through his skill, he made the mode of revealing the truth of keris to presence. He does not merely bring forth a material but also an actual revealing by techne which is framed in poiesis (the highest form of physis, eg poetic poetry).

By contrast, instead of being aware of the original revelation, current technological revelation approaches the world as a stock or a standing-reserve, meaning keeping to be taken, stored, and exploited. The revelation is called enframing and its character is setting-upon and ordering the stock of natural resources. Technology at the nuclear power plants, for example, shows the way in which the modern men enframe nature to generate electricity. At this position, Heidegger does metaphysicalized technology to accomplish a critical result, breaking instrumental and anthropological framing of technology so as to disclose increasingly the creative possibilities to living with the world, something more like primordial-relation with technology. In effect, we obtain a new understanding of the trait of technology, our relation with it, and, possibly, how we should deal with it. Heidegger’s legacy on revelation significantly opens a new ontological insight on the way technology relates to the environment.

Another significant example is Don Ihde, founder of post-phenomenology and technoscience, discussing numerous issues as regards science-technology relations. For Ihde, science cannot grow and improve in the failure of technology as the instrumentation. He discovers four phenomenological basic relations inside technological employment, namely 1) embodiment relations; 2) hermeneutic relations; 3) alterity relations; and 3) background relations[iii], which, in the end, could help us explain the hidden dimension and the power of technology in our social-cultural context. Following Ihde, we could know, aside from being a tool or mode of revealing, technology pervades into our everyday lives and, authentically, afflicts it.

Those two philosophers demonstrate that metaphysics could engender us to be remarkably explorative and sensitive towards technology. However, it does not stop there. Metaphysics enable us to expose the relation of technology with free-will and determinism, nature and artificial, being and becoming. David Skrbina is a good example of this. He claims technology includes everything, including a person and its society. Furthermore, it is deterministic and has an intrinsic intensity in its existence. Skrbina called this phenomenon as pantechnicon, a situation identifying itself as a universal creation process, as realization (techne) of the universal order (logos)[iv]. Consequently, Skrbina removes the distinction between natural and human-made creations since to some extent all that exists are the product of techne-logos.

Pantechnicon, which for me is deterministic and monistic in the singularity, has two essential phases: the anthropogenic and the autogenic[v], which is believed by Skrbina as a ‘reversal’. In the first phase, the anthropogenic phase, technological determinism was commenced when humans learned how to control fire and create simple tools. In this time, tools were created to serve humans’ purpose in developing civilization. However, the next phase, the autogenic phase, which has not been realized yet, but will arrive soon, is the time when technological devices and gadgets, ranging from self-aware computers, nano-machines, and even innovation from biotechnology will serve their own purpose rather than a human being. Technology will become self-augmenting, self-evolving, and autonomous. This turning point will make humanity into machine raw materials or servants of technology.

Skrbina, therefore, brings himself to the perennial debate, the free will of technology. For him, on the condition that men lose their freedom over technology, humanity will be the servant of technology. Is it really the case? Fortunately, Pantechnikon still has gaps opening for further questions, for example in the questions and discourse pointed out by T.J. Reviers[vi] and Jacques Elul,[vii] and it exactly shows the significance of metaphysics in the technological discourse. By having and trying to strive for the right metaphysical assumption on technology we could contribute to formulating the recommendations needed by societies to thrive.

To conclude, technology is one of the substantial parts of the simultaneous phenomena in human civilization. Skrbina’s notion of the technological ‘reversal’ is not the only one and the last answers for metaphysics of technology. By understanding the metaphysics of technology, conversely, we could carry on the activity of technology which is not material-functional, and, in that situation, be guided to a new resolution in understanding and criticizing the technology itself. We should not incautiously despair or complacent over what we call advanced technology. There is a great deal of other metaphysical issues in technology that unresolved, in the next articles I will try to explore it one by one on the official ze-no.org page. For now, let’s end it by ‘happy metaphysical-izing!” —u n i c o d e: U+1F923)


[i] Short Introduction about Metaphysics, see. Michael J. Loux and Thomas M. Crisp, Metaphysics: A contemporary introduction, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 1‒9.

[ii] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013).

[iii] Don Ihde, Technic and Praxis (Boston: Dordrecht Reidel Publishing Company, 1979), 3–40.

[iv] David Skrbina, Metaphysics of Technology (London: Taylor & Francis, 2016), 119.

[v] Skrbina, Metaphysics of Technology, 205–208.

[vi] T.J Reviers’ discusses the freedom’s role in technology, from five possibilities of characteristics technology: (i) technology is the result of rationality; (ii) it is expressed materially; (iii) it is based upon the accumulation of its results; (iv) it is demonstrative of a process; and (v) it is embodied in a method that serves as an artifice. See T.J. River, “An Introduction to the Metaphysics of Technology”, in Technology in Society 27 (2005), 551–574.

[vii] Jacques Ellul divides technological features into six parts: (i) artificial; (ii) autonomous; (iii) self-determining; (iv) a process; (v) cumulative of means; and (vi) all parts (i-v) are interrelated to such an extent that they cannot be separated. I do not say Skrbina is wrong, rather urging to reevaluate his thesis. See Jacques Ellul, “The Technological Order” in Proceedings of the Encyclopedia Britannica conference (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963), 10‒11.