By way of introduction to this essay on Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology,” intelligence, ignorance, and stupidity need to be operationally defined. Why this is pertinent for this particular investigation is indicated in an introduction, that way the reader is forewarned of an application that will only become clear from reading the work as a whole. To that end, reference is first made to David Krakauer’s definitions in his podcast with Sam Harris, “Complexity and Stupidity,” then it is brought up again only in the conclusions taken up in the final chapters of the work, once the more substantive critical groundwork has been laid. The example and subsequent analysis is taken directly from the podcast, with one slight modification of its implications.
In the podcast, Krakauer asks us to imagine the problem of solving a Rubix cube. The Rubix cube, he points out, has a definite solution that can be reached from any given configuration, meaning however it looks when one starts, the problem of the Rubix cube can be solved. To anyone one looking to solve it, then, a problem immediately arises: what moves do I make, and when? In short, how do I solve it? This hypothetical problem is not meant exclusively. Instead, it can be understood as a metaphor for any situation in which one encounters a set of initial conditions, conditions which in their indeterminateness present a problem to be understood and/or solved, conditions the manipulation of which lead to, as the only means, a solution to that problem. This “problematic situation,” as will be emphasized in what is to come, can be one requiring either “doing” or “knowing.” In fact it will be assumed throughout that with respect to resolving problematic situations in essence these two ways of resolving them are one in the same.
Krakauer’s discussion implies, without using the exact term, that ignorance regarding how to solve the cube from any given configuration means one could randomly turn the sides in various ways, over and over again, and so long as those turns were truly random, eventually some combination of them would happen upon the solution, as it were, by chance. The operative words here are “random” and “eventually.” Since in theory the set of potential moves leading to any specific outcome is finite and countable, in theory chance variations—if carried out long enough—will eventually happen upon the configuration that is “the solution.” Krakauer rightly notes that computationally this solution by random variation would take the duration of several universes for a device like the Rubix cube, but for a simpler device, like rolling a dice or flipping a coin, only extremely short durations are needed to get to a specified outcome. So somewhere in between a Rubix cube and a coin flip lays a realistic device that is solvable by chance in the real world. Many problems are thankfully of this sort. In any case, ignorance when trying to solve a problem amounts to leaving the desired outcome to chance. In the long run and after multiple attempts, an ignorant person may eventually happen upon the solution, but certainly more than that is desirable.
Enter here intelligence and stupidity. In both of these cases, the desired outcome is or is not achieved in a way that systematically deviates from chance—or equivalently, the solution comes to pass in a way that systematically differs from plain and simple ignorance. The key word here is “systematically.” An intelligent or stupid attempt to understand and solve a problem reliably and predictably leads to either a better than or worse than chance solution. Recurring to the Rubix cube, an intelligent understanding would be one that leads to solving it in less than the time it would otherwise take by chance, and a stupid one would take more time, if it is solved it at all. Applied further, reliably solving the cube in, for instance, about 150 moves would indicate intelligence; it would demonstrate an understanding of the problem that leads to solutions, not away from them, all the way up to the most intelligent understanding of all, one that could solve the problem with the minimum number of moves required from any given configuration. By contrast, stupidity would lead reliably and predictably to solutions that would take longer than chance—say, for instance, repeating exactly the same moves a few times in the random variations to solve it, all the way up to the optimized stupidity of turning the same side over and over again repeatedly for all eternity, thereby guaranteeing that it never gets solved and no progress is ever made. In these ways, intelligence and stupidity can be operationally defined as characterizations, formulations, understandings, explanations, descriptions—whatever the terms deployed—that respectively either lead or not to the solution a problem, a query, or a situation at hand—again, whatever the specific terms. The metaphor is both flexible and far reaching.
So now it naturally arises: what, if anything, can these operational definitions have to with an essay by Heidegger that asks a “question” concerning technology, one grounded in thinking technology, humanity, truth and Being together and down to their essence? What could be ignorant, intelligent, or stupid about an essay that purports to raise a question as a task for thinking the essential roots of an issue of paramount importance for our age, one that moves into the essence of the matter, not merely asks a “question” as though the “answer” might “solve” a “problem”? Can “problem solving” even apply to Heidegger’s “thinking,” and therefore can it even be ignorant, intelligent, or stupid, as operationally defined here?
In the first place, stipulating that Heidegger does not set out to “solve” a “problem” in the sense implied with the Rubix cube metaphor is already to place undue weight on his ostensible purpose, disposing as it does the underlying issue into his rhetorical terms. For in a non-metaphysical, non-philosophical way, resolving a problematic situation is precisely what he sets out to do. The rise and dominance of technology in the modern world poses a problem for humanity—our existence within it is a problematic situation—even if that “problematic situation” is posed in terms of “thinking” the “essence” of humanity, as Dasein, with respect to its relationship to the essence of technology and “Being”. The emphasis on essence, not the “mere” language of questions, answers and problems, only shifts the emphasis from posing a tangential problem that may or may not be ignored to posing an essential one that cannot. Technology—how to understand it, and what we can expect to do with that understanding—is for Heidegger perhaps the most pressing problem of our age, one touching on every aspect of our lives at the deepest levels, including and perhaps especially our understanding of ourselves; one on which our future as a species—or as Heidegger would prefer to put it, our historical Dasein—depends. Understanding technology within its proper limits will, for Heidegger, guide us in how we cope with it in the present, as well as with how we shape our expectations about using it the future. It may even determine the horizons of what we can expect to change, or not, whatever the case may be. In any case, to deny that “The Question Concerning Technology” poses a problem in the loose, non-philosophically laden sense implied here is to both mischaracterize the colloquial sense in which “problem” is both used and applicable, as well as to distort the main thrust of Heidegger’s essay.
In the second place, even if the resolution is only achieving clarity as to its “essence,” it belongs to any attempt to resolve a problematic situation to do it either from ignorance, with intelligence, or stupidly. This should not be controversial, and it is stressed here simply because Heidegger intends for readers to take seriously his efforts to think through the essence of technology as a necessary task for our historical Dasein—or as this author would prefer, as a necessary step for the prosperity, or even the preservation, of our species. As such, Heidegger’s thinking is either ensconced in ignorance, crippled by stupidity, or illuminated by intelligence. Again, this should not be controversial, as it merely states candidly the qualities by which most attempts to pose and solve problems are judged by anyone.
With this prefatory metaphor and two caveats in mind, what follows attempts to show that Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” is not only bereft of intelligence and surpassingly ignorant; it is in fact—or in essence, if the term is insisted upon—stupid. And beyond even that: Heidegger’s formulation of the question concerning technology, and his proposed solution, is optimally stupid in its single-minded focus on Being—“optimally” in the sense that if one thinks along its path, one is guaranteed to know nothing worthwhile about technology or science, much less the relationship between the two, and what’s more, one is guaranteed to get virtually everything wrong that could otherwise be gotten right when thinking about both, just as if one sat in a chair and turned one side of the Rubix cube over and over again for all eternity trying to solve it. Strong words, no doubt, and the rest of this essay is devoted to putting up the why and the wherefore of them.
As such, the essay is composed in four parts.
In Part One, the underlying problem of confronting modern technology is set up by pointing out the necessary correlation in Heidegger’s thinking between Dasein’s “disclosedness” and the “offering “of Being (Chapter 1). With the problem thus set up, Heidegger’s two essences of technology—poiesis for ancient technology and com-posing for modern—are discussed (Chapter 2). From this discussion a potential problem arises, namely, the necessary non-concurrence of poiesis and com-posing as the respective essences of ancient and modern technology. This potential problem is not imposed from the outside, using some external criterion through which to judge Heidegger’s thinking. Rather it emerges dialectically from within Heidegger’s own exposition, and once brought up the implications of this potential problem are fleshed out in detail, first by examining two aspects of ancient technology (mining and de-forestation) that are essentially as modern as any modern technology he mentions (Chapter 3) and then by examining (Chapter 4) two modern technologies that simply do not fit com-posing as the essence of modern technology (pre-industrial farming and telecommunications). As violations of Heidegger’s own precepts, both examples show that the logic of his essay is unsupportable, revealing that his ‘thinking on essence,’ such as it is, isn’t essential at all because it simply doesn’t reveal the very things it needs to reveal in order to be an essence, and worse, it actually excludes the possibility of occurring what has in fact occurred, something no essence can ever do. This problematizing of Heidegger’s essence of technology as two exclusive offerings of Being opens the way to an alternative characterization of the “essence” of technology, taken up in Part Two.
In Part Two, two new conceptions of the “essence” of technology are introduced, the ‘mechanization of agency’ (Chapter 5) and the ‘drive to universalization’ (Chapter 6). These two alternatives to “ancient” and “modern” technology as poiesis and com-posing are only introduced in so far as some alternative essence of both ancient and modern technology could be offered in place of the two Heidegger suggests, without any claims that only two essences in fact exist, much less any claim that the two must not co-exist concurrently in a given period of time. In short, Heidegger’s answer to the question concerning technology is challenged on its own terms both by improving his inadequate descriptions of ancient and modern technology and by correcting the untenable history of Being as the exclusive bestowal of those essences. By way of introduction to these alternative essences, the degree to which Heidegger’s thoughts on ancient causality are problematic is discussed in detail, particularly with respect to his reading of Aristotle, as is David Deutsch’s conception of “universalization” as a candidate for the “essence” of modern technology. Both discussions lead naturally to alternative essences for ancient and modern technology as the ‘mechanization of agency’ and the ‘drive to universalization,’ as well as to a generalization characteristic of technology as such as an ‘appreciation for universal’ in some sense. As concluding remarks to Part Two, the contiguity of ancient and modern technology as tendencies is observed (Chapter 6), in stark opposition to Heidegger’s mutually exclusive essences bestowed by Being.
In Part Three, Heidegger’s attempt to relate modern science to technology is discussed, particularly the notion that science is the “harbinger” of modern technology. Specifically, his notion that modern science is intrinsically a “challenging imposition” that prevents nature from revealing itself is first deepened (Chapter 7) by situating Heidegger in the classical ‘two tables’ problem in modern physics, i.e. the ontological problem of the scientifically real versus the everyday real; then this deepening it itself challenged (Chapter 8) by asserting the artificiality of all “natural” essence. In effect, it is show that the very basis on which Heidegger would differentiate science from philosophy presumes imposition on beings in the strict sense of the term, at least an “imposition” as strong any in science itself. With both the deepening and the challenging in place, Heidegger’s understanding of science as objectification taken up in more detail (Chapter 9), once again both deepening his characterization of modern science as a “challenging imposition” and challenging it on other grounds, grounds that emerge dialectically from Heidegger’s own suppositions. In the final analysis, Heidegger’s so-called “essential” thoughts on science are rejected either as incorrect or as entirely trivial, and in their place is offered an account—again, largely using Heidegger’s own term—of what science essentially does, and how it does it. To that end, Torricelli’s invention of the barometer and his concurrent discovery of atmospheric pressure is discussed (Chapter 10) as a quintessentially modern example of how science both reveals authentic—even essential—knowledge of nature, even as it works together with technology in order to do so. In this discussion, special attention is paid to how modern science, properly understood, can be effective (as it in fact is effective) only as poiesis in an authentic yet corrected Heideggerian sense, albeit one requiring existential variation in experiment within ‘receptive activity’ instead of the “eidetic variation” in imagination through “active receptivity” Rojcewicz so carefully elaborates in Heidegger. As a concluding chapter to Part Three, how modern science is essentially the “non-chauvinistic” way of knowing and disclosure while ancient science is the “chauvinistic” one is tentatively sketched out (Chapter 11), and to this end Aristotle’s physics and Galileo’s and Torricelli’s experiments and discoveries are compared.
In Part Four, the various threads of the preceding discussion are stitched together (Chapter 12) into a single strand showing that the ‘path of thinking’ in Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” is not just in error; rather the path Heidegger would have readers take amounts to optimized stupidity on science, technology, and on the prospect for coming to terms with both in their increasingly all-pervasive role in human—indeed, perhaps all—life on Earth. As a final argument to this effect, the strictly normative character of Heidegger’s “essences” of technology is illustrated; then the conflation of normative for substantive thinking is examined with respect to linking ‘the question concerning technology’ to ‘the question of Being.’ In this examination, the implicit problem of values in Heidegger’s clandestinely normative account is explicitly raised, then the genuine problem underlying this conflation is discussed in detail (Chapter 13), specifically with respect to how question of values emerges from the question concerning technology, as well as with respect to how this question in Heidegger’s thought bears on the problem of ethics. Once the possibility of founding an ethics for technology in Heidegger’s question of being is criticized, Heidegger’s own oblique reference to a solution to the problem of technology—“piety” before Being—is discussed (Chapter 14), then the discussion turns to the implied issue underlying the very manner in which The Question Concerning Technology is structured—namely, the question of a “foundation” for an ethics of technology. This question of a “foundation” for a technological ethics is discussed in detail (Chapter 15), then the results of that discussion are brought back to bear on the originating problem of this Part: the implicit relationship between technology and values (Chapter 16). In this discussion, the idea of grounding an ethics of technology in a strictly immanent way (within the “human abode”) is clarified, and with this clarification last vestiges of the Heideggerian context for framing ‘the question concerning technology’ are rejected and a proposed context where faith in inclusive ends replaces piety before Being is offered in its place. At this point, the difference between “faith in inclusive ends” and “piety before Being” is clarified, with the later offered as a replacement for the optimized stupidity of the former.
The main argument of the essay concludes by re-visiting the question of “chauvinism,” this time by situating “faith in inclusive ends” inside the “human abode” against finding direction or value in Being. In this faith, the situatedness of humanity within the natural world is emphasized over any ‘abyss of essence’ that might separate it, and the question of chauvinism is once again turned back onto Heidegger, even as he professes emphasis on the non-human, on Being. In the end, focus on the exclusive uniqueness of humanity, essence or otherwise, is rejected a precisely as the root of the problem technology now represents. As a means to this solution, faith in the context of naturally situated freedom is offered as the principle means through which humanity can determine its own technological destiny.
On a methodological note, as a guide for and inspiration of this essay Richard Rojcewicz’s The Gods and Technology: A Reading of Heidegger is relied on heavily as a definitive interpretation of Heidegger’s thoughts on science and technology. By this author’s lights, Rojcewicz’s work is the best available book in print on “The Question Concerning Technology,” if not on the later Heidegger in general as well. Also, for dialectical reasons Heidegger’s own theoretical predilections both in “The Question Concerning Technology” and elsewhere are relied on whenever possible in order to contextualize the arguments presented against him. In other words, Heidegger is granted as much as can be reasonably granted on his own terms, and as such far longer and more arduous paths are taken to reach the conclusions that admittedly could—and probably should—have been reached by far shorter and much quicker dismissive means. But in any case, the long paths are taken wherever they present themselves, hopefully leading to a thorough and definitive debunking of the most counter-productive obscurantism on technology in any philosophical tradition, if not also of a prime example of the worst vices of philosophical thinking generally.