Rethink Technology To Balance Engineering and Spirituality
Chapter Three: Leveraging Muscles in the Age of Magic
Technology literally means anything of human design, and all technology is based on leverage, extending our limited human capabilities to get greater and greater results. The aim is to minimize the energy needed on the input side, to get greater results on the outcome side. A win-win combination.
Leverage is at the heart of the engineering enterprise; it’s the reason we make and use tools: to increase the productivity of our limited bodies and minds. We use tools to leverage our imaginations and capabilities to shape nature to our ends, or at least minimize nature’s harmful impacts on us. You can move a big rock with less effort when you increase the length of the crowbar. It’s easier to push a door open at the handle than at the hinges. Tools are how we impose mind on matter with greater and greater efficiency.
Some tools leverage to good ends, as the plow facilitates farming. Some technology leverages to bad ends, like weapons of mass destruction. And some tools have dual use, like the telescope that can reveal the stars, or peek in the neighbor’s boudoir.
To be heard 100 yards away in 1900 required cupping your hands and shouting with all your might. Today, by leveraging energy units at the sub-atomic level, we can whisper into a smartphone and be heard instantly and clearly halfway around the world.
Our ancestors began moving from hunting and gathering to farming and herding about 10,000 years ago, during the Neolithic Revolution. Beginning to live in settled communities to farm the land required them to develop a portfolio of tools for which there had been no previous need.
The earliest technologies were the six tools of antiquity: the lever, block and tackle, screw, inclined plane, wheel, and the wedge. They all leveraged our muscles. And that makes sense because the first task of an emerging civilization is to drain swamps, irrigate and cultivate fields, build walled cities, and construct monuments to placate the gods.
And from early on, stories were told cautioning against misuse of technology. Daedalus engineered a labyrinth to contain the monstrous Minotaur that threatened Crete. After that, he conceived an exit strategy to get out of the maze. He would make wings of wax so he and his son Icarus could fly to safety. But Daedalus warned Icarus, do not to fly so high the sun melts your wings, or so low the ocean waves reach up and grab you. Instead, Daedalus urged his son, take the middle path, the Golden Mean, between the hazardous extremes.
Unfortunately, proud Icarus didn’t take his father’s advice, and flew so high the sun melted his wings and he fell into the sea and drowned.
As Goldilocks would later discover, the right path is found in the middle: not too much and not too little, but just right!
With tools, and large-scale social organizations, civilizations were indeed built. But while these tools leveraged and enhanced muscle power to grow more food, they still needed more muscles to acquire more land to produce more food. And so, as the strong captured more land they acquired slaves. And that in turn demanded a well-run, well-equipped army, leveraging its muscles behind wedge-shaped arrows, spears, and swords to conquer others and enslave them to do the new masters’ bidding.
Then came the need to justify the cruelty, so wedge-shaped belief systems were devised, and recounted in stories surviving through generations telling why our people alone enjoy the mandate of heaven.
So now came the need for chains, yokes, and whips to keep the slaves in check. And with slaves to work the farms, local men were freed up to form armies to use their weapons to acquire more land, which in turn both provided and demanded more slaves to work the land.
So it’s fair to ask, were swords first beaten into plowshares to farm the land, or were plowshares first beaten into swords to acquire more land?
The trouble with this scheme is that eventually such civilizations make a lot of enemies, both within (the slaves who might revolt, like the gladiator Spartacus) and without (the invading barbarians like Attila the Hun). Eventually the Classical Age was undone by its own imperial, aggressive success, and brought low by barbaric invasions in the fourth and fifth centuries CE.
And too there was the role of the emerging Christian Church working from within the Empire which, in its efforts to obliterate the pagan past, smashed and burned much of the art and science of the Classical Age.
In AD 391, Theophilus, the patriarch of Alexandria, urged a mob to destroy the great library there, in effect causing the hard disk crash of the Western memory bank for centuries.
Scrolls on farming, animal husbandry, weather, medicine, pharmacology, metallurgy, navigation and so many other sciences and crafts, along with much great art, were turned into ashes. Most tragically, the healing arts were discarded for centuries. Faith in the Christ and prayer alone would be sufficient for recovery in the young Christian world. And woe to any woman who tried to keep the folk tradition of medicine alive, especially regarding women’s health.
The rest of the first millennium is called the Age of Faith by church apologists, while many historians refer to the time as the Dark Ages. (Although enlightenment did remain at the distant edges of the old empire: in Christian Ireland and under the new religion of Islam in Arabia.)
As the first millennium of the Christian era was ending, many believed that the world would soon end with the re-appearance of Jesus Christ in the year 1000. In many communities, no planting was done in the last years, thinking there would be no one to harvest, or need, the crops. (To this day, people who believe in the imminent end of the world are called millennialists.)
When the sun rose on January 1, 1000, and the world was still here, people realized they needed to begin some long-term planning. Over the next several centuries, a few straightforward developments enabled a revolution in agriculture, from which so much else would follow.
The first of these was a redesigned plow, pulled by teams of oxen, that didn’t simply cut the ground, but turned the rich, wet soil of Europe over to increase its fertility and allow for drainage without erosion. Then, with the development of better shoulder collars, horses were able to replace oxen. So with harnesses that didn’t strangle the horse, and horseshoes that provided better traction, there was increased “horsepower.” Finally came the discovery that you could cultivate a field for two years in a row, not one, before letting it lie fallow to regain its fertility.
An increased food supply, from the same amount of land, meant healthier people, longer lives, lower infant mortality, and livestock that didn’t have to be slaughtered in the fall because now there was winter feed for them.
So 800 or 900 years ago, and for the first time in centuries, there was the beginning of surplus (though not abundance) in Europe. And when people get past subsistence, they remember to thank the goddess of fertility. Just like how, in the U.S., we celebrate Miss Liberty in peacetime, but obey Uncle Sam in wartime.
Within two centuries, people in Northern Europe showed their appreciation by building over 100 temples to the goddess of fertility; though to be politically correct in Christendom they were called cathedrals dedicated to Our Lady (Notre Dame), the virgin mother of Jesus.
Then, as in agriculture, a few straightforward developments transformed architecture: the narrow, pointed Gothic arch and the external flying buttress allowed those temples / cathedrals to soar, and the ribbed vault allowed for placing windows in the heavenly upper reaches.
The first Gothic church, St-Denis near Paris, harmonized architecture, and metaphysics in a way that still inspires. The intent of the builder, Abbé Suger (1081–1151), was to use stained glass to draw the faithful literally into the light. For him, sunlight was lux (Latin for “light”), but after it passed through the colored stained glass into the sacred space it became lumen (luminous, inspiring), and when that light entered the eye of the believer it became illumination (spiritual enlightenment, wisdom).
Inspired by such integration of faith and stone — of religion and engineering — imaginations began to soar. New forms were encouraged, new materials developed, and new social organizations undercut the land-based Feudal order, and re-invigorated life in towns and cities.
People were encouraged to travel to holy sites, as Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims did in April 1390, exchanging goods, ideas, and eventually bloodlines and genes. (See The Timetables of Technology; A chronology of the most important people and events in the history of technology; Brian Bunch and Alexander Hellemans, Touchstone, 1994.)
Also spreading stories and genes during that time were traveling poets called troubadours who, inspired by this increased reverence for notre dame, set out from the south of France bringing with them songs that elevated the status of women from merely men’s possessions to positions of exaltation.
The chivalrous knights of those stories would lay down their lives for m’lady. And although the struggle for women’s equality is far from over, it appears to have had its beginnings in the time when more and more people were beginning to enjoy the bounty of Mother Earth, and honor and exalt her reflection in her human daughters. (C. S. Lewis defined this courtly love in “Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love,” The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, Widener, London 1936.)
When God Walked with Man in the Garden of Eden
In the early stages of human consciousness, the natural order and the moral order were understood to be the same. The ancients knew the ground rules: if they violated the natural/moral order, as Ulysses did when he offended the sea god Poseidon, it meant paying a price. In his case, undergoing a ten-year detour on his way home after the Trojan War (The Odyssey, Homer, c. 900 BCE).
In magical antiquity, nature was so orderly most of the time — with its daily, monthly, and annual cycles — that there had to be a design and designer/s at work within it or above it or under it or sustaining it, with thoughts and feelings much like our own: trolls, gnomes, goblins, jinnis, fates, angels, demons, leprechauns, gods, and goddesses. They accounted for all good fortune, and to them thanks must be given.
But sometimes things went very wrong: a mother died in childbirth; a neighbor fell down a well and drowned; thunder and lightning shook the world to its foundation. Fear and terror were set foot in the world. Was that part of the design? And if so, how do we appease the designer/s? Like children, our ancestors looked high and low for ways to placate the unseen — but always present — divine ones, to make the fear and pain go away.
To make sense of it all, the ancients told stories about the even-more ancient days when the gods were seen and walked among the ancestors and even negotiated together, as God with Adam and Abraham (Gen 18:28). (See The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes; Houghton Mifflin, 1976.)
And those old stories told of the close bond between god/s and “our people” and tied all things together, giving a special significance to “us” and our place in the cosmos. Magical words and movements enhanced that special-ness, and there were secret rites, and sacred sites to visit at certain times of the year.
Then in the First Millennium BCE, the Jews and the Greeks took off in different directions in their notions of the divine. For the Jews, God was the measure of all things, and it was “better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.” (Psalm 118:8 c. 900 BCE). For the Greek philosopher Protagoras (d 420 BCE), however, “Man is the measure of all things.”
When the Jews returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile in 539 BCE, their first concern was to re-build God’s Temple. At the same time, Thales of Miletus (d. 546) was conducting experiments to find the common physical element in all matter, and concluded it was water.
God YHWH was a living presence for the Jews, experienced by the ear in the sounds of nature: the voice in the Burning Bush, the whisper in the prophet’s ear, the whirlwind upbraiding Job.
Later, the teachings of rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef (in Greek, Jesus; and in literal English Joshua Joseph-son), an observant Jew, were also nature-based: spoken stories meant to convey hidden knowledge in daily occurrences to illiterate villagers and country folk.
Behold, he said, how fig trees, lilies of the field, birds of the air and even mustard seeds, all point to the omnipresence of One whose concern for us all is as dear and intimate as a loving parent (Abba) for his child. And Abba is present here and now, not only on the mountaintop or heaven on high. Even more, He is accessible to all: “For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21).
(Semitic peoples, Jews and Arabs, experience God through the ear: “Hear, O Israel…”; “In the beginning was the Word…”; “Koran” means “the recitation.” Gentiles, on the other hand, from India to Ireland, experience God through the eye, which accounts for the pictures and statues of God-made-flesh, such as Lord Krishna and The Christ].)
By the Fourth Century BCE, thoughtful Greeks began discarding their many, human-like gods because of their sometimes-petty behavior, their foibles, and their endless in-fighting. Aristotle’s Metaphysics (350 BCE) defines God as a pure idea: “unmoved mover, himself unmoved — perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation: itself contemplating.” This was a God beyond the ken of most people; a god-as-concept for philosophers only.
The God of Israel was not the austere “god of the philosophers,” but a God who could intervene in history, as when “He” made the king of Persia free the Israelites from bondage in Babylon. Nor is God YHWH one in a pantheon of gods on Mt. Olympus, but reigns by Himself in splendid, isolated, male-only One-ness.
When the Romans, influenced in so many ways by the Greeks, took over the folk and nature-based “Jesus movement” in the early Fourth Century CE, they placed The Kingdom beyond space and time, accessible only through their institutional church, outside of which “there is no salvation.”
To maintain its previous, imperial claim of uniquely possessing all power, truth and authority, Rome set out to eliminate nature-based folk religions still practiced in the countryside, the pays (by pagans), in the heath (by heathens), and in small villages (by villains). And when the Church insisted on Faith-alone remedies (prayer, confession, donations), those who kept the folk healing traditions alive were sometimes burned as witches.
In the Roman church, rabbi Jesus’ endearing “Abba” (daddy, papa) became “Father Almighty,” before whom we are to cower as “God-fearing people.” Picking up where the gentile Greeks left off, the Roman church eventually pictured God as such an abstract concept that by the late 13th Century, the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), wrote a monumental work proving God’s existence using logic (The Summa Theological). Then, close to his death, he realized his efforts were useless, “dust in the wind,” and repudiated all his many works. The mind of man cannot fathom the infinite and the eternal.
Despite that, that book has remained the gold standard of Catholic theology and higher education for over 700 years and was during my time in college.
The double helix of the Western mind — the faith of the Jews and the rationality of the Greeks — has each strand grounded on one of two rocky outcrops: the “faith helix” on Temple Mount / The Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem, and the “reason helix” fixed at the Acropolis in Athens. And to this day, much to our peril, we have yet to harmonize reason and faith; science and religion.
Which may partly account for the wild extremes of religious fervor found today by some in the Abrahamic faiths: Zionist settlers whose violence mocks Israel’s prophetic tradition; Christian fundamentalists who regard ignorance, superstition, and misogyny as virtues; and Islamic Jihadis who, in the name of the all-compassionate and all-merciful, exhibit neither compassion nor mercy.
With friends like these now, the “God” of tradition doesn’t need enemies anymore.
Now we have so effectively divided reason from faith that even as our understanding of the interwoven nature of nature as revealed by the sciences grows exponentially, many refuse to see that as a newly revealed reflection of the “mind of God.” Instead, they remain enthralled by the image of the archaic god of Abraham who favors “the Chosen” above “all Others.” Perhaps because it best suits their own interests.
In the Catholic Mass, God is still portrayed like a pastoral chieftain of 5,000 years ago who, in return for the people offering God a cup of blood from an innocent victim (His own son, in fact), He will be moved to send rain to His chosen ones this year, and locusts to their enemies.
And so the developed world has been grinding itself down over these last four centuries, since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, by the continued refusal of the churchmen to acknowledge the expanded Book of Knowledge that scientists began writing in 1600. And after the wars of the Reformation, and the burning of ‘natural philosophers’ like Giordano Bruno, the scientists were just as happy to get the churchmen off their backs.
Since then, it is as if one hemisphere of Western Civilization’s brain moved into the Age of the Material, Mechanical, Measurable World. And the other hemisphere remained in the Age of Magic, Myth and Marvel. And like the man with one foot in a boat headed upstream, and the other foot in a boat headed downstream, Western Civ has been, and continues to be, ripped in half.
When I moved to Silicon Valley in the late 1970s, it noticed so many cars on the Bayshore Freeway with a bumper sticker proclaiming, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” It was jarring to see that passing through cities named after Saints Francis, Clare, Joseph, and Matthew — among the most pacific and generous of all the saints.
There was and is no effort, amid the speed and hustle of the place, to remember their legacy of charity and mercy. Or use that legacy in shaping the technology that comes from this place.
We need to give serious thought to what that could mean in the future.
GPS technology might have helped Dante find his way out of a dark forest one Friday afternoon centuries ago. But without a moral compass, he would remain lost wherever he went.
The last four centuries have brought unbelievable advances in material gain to humanity — far beyond anything even Shakespeare could have imagined in 1610 at the dawn of the Scientific, Industrial and Information Age: “O brave new world!”
But along with material gain came materialism, and a culture of waste, greed and aggression that has brought us a moral and physical abyss.
The hope, maybe our only hope now, is that we went through this painful and wasteful materialist transition state so that finally our children and their descendants may pass at last from the Age of Myth and Magic, and the Age of the Material, to establish an Age of Meaning — meaning that was there from the beginning, but largely unseen and unheard until now.
And who would have thought it would be the godless sciences, unmoored from religion, that would help further man’s search for meaning, as we will explore in the coming chapters.
© 2022, Thomas Mahon