Newcastle Phil and Lit: Technology and Heidegger

This week the redoubtable Newcastle Philosophical and Literary society, in partnership with Newcastle College, extended a very warm and hospitable welcome to a Faith and a Wisdom discussion in their current series entitled ‘On the Edge’ (we were ‘On the Edge of Faith’).  It’s so heartening to see these highly civilised organisations dedicated to thinking, learning and discussion still flourishing in the heart of our great cities, selling out on a wet and cold February Thursday.

the question time was very impressive and also challenging.  We had managed to cover

Newcastle Phil and Lit library

Newcastle Phil and Lit library

a little science (Brownian motion of signalling proteins – an example of order out of chaos and a reflection on our human ability to see below the surface of nature), some science history (Grosseteste’s extraordinary cosmogony in his 1225 De Luce) and a decent look at the hymn to wisdom in Job 28 in the search for material in support of a deep narrative for science.

‘Might the apprentice conflict between science and religion stem from technology rather than science itself?’ Wondered one questioner. I think that the thrust here is that science itself is not inherently threatening, as it ‘lights up the world’ rather than ‘changes the world’.  Indeed, as John Hedley-Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor point out in theirs Gifford lectures ‘Reconstructing the Universe’, 18th and 19th century chemistry was especially challenging theologically as it was (at that time) far more than physics or biology, the science that changed the world.  And doing this touches the raw nerve of that deeply reactionary ‘playing at God and trespassing on sacred nature’ narrative that plays out even today as an underlying driver of debate around technology.  However, I don’t think that historically the role of technology over against science holds up as a catalyst of confrontation.  It was not developing technology that Draper and White invoked in their 19th century polemics that painted for the first time the backdrop of conflict on the stage of science and religion.

A second questioner challenged my reference to Heidegger as a philosopher incompatible with the Bible.  In fact I was also accused of mentioning only this one philosopher – grave omission indeed at a ‘lit and PHIL’.  But I checked that we had in fact also discussed Arendt and Aristotle during the evening, so I hope we made our quota.  Actually I had referred to him as another thinker who echoes the theme of ‘hiddenness’ of the world (in his Being and Time).  This is not of course to endorse all his thought, much of which has been accused as obscurantist. His membership of the Nazi party during the 1930s and the war years will also always be a stain on his reputation. However, there is no reason to ignore everything that such a serious thinker has said, in spite of his faults. Arendt herself drew heavily on his ideas in describing the alienation from nature in her ‘The Human Condition’.

Now I am of course realising that there is a connection between the two questions. Heidegger was a philosopher deeply concerned with how we live in a technological society.  But perhaps he lacked the roots of ancient wisdom that the book of Job mysteriously urges us towards in its reach towards today’s world from such very different times.

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