Philosophy, Religion, Technology

A tale of two ‘ologies (or: what might we learn about God from a toaster?)

I don’t believe that technology and theology are very often compared, but I want to make the rather unusual connection between these two ‘ologies of my title, and apply our understanding of the concept of technology to the world of theology. I want to argue that the ways in which we perceive our technological artefacts and systems can provide an analogy for the ways in which we interact with God. I believe it can lead us to an interesting understanding of the way in which humans relate to the Divine, and shine an alternative light on some otherwise rather unusual and surprising looking texts in the Jewish tradition. It started as something of a thought experiment at the beginning of my PhD research over a year ago, and may be a little abstract, but I would appreciate thoughts and comments as I develop it.

Wheat and bread: which would you rather eat? Pictures from Wikipedia.

Firstly, the beginning of Genesis (1:26-7) tells us that humans were created in the image of God. Jewish tradition teaches that this does not mean that humans physically look like God; on the contrary, God has no physical form. Rather, it means that we possess the ability to think and to create, in a similar manner to that manifested by God. Indeed, through our capacity to continue and to complete the work of creation we are to be partners in the act of creation with God. An ancient parable illustrates this very nicely. Rabbi Akiva, a very influential sage of the 1st century CE, was asked by a Roman governor which were greater, the works of God or the works of man (Midrash Tanchuma, Tazria, 5). Rabbi Akiva’s response was to compare some grains of wheat with a loaf of bread and ask which was better to eat. While the natural, unprocessed grains were more directly the work of God, the bread represented the ability of humans to make something more from God’s world. Humans could use this raw material, complete it, and subsequently gain benefit from it through the application of our creativity and our technology. This is why, when Jews make a blessing of thanksgiving and acknowledgement over bread, as over all food, the blessing over bread is considered the most important.

Given the human capacity for creation which follows from the fact that we are created in the divine image, our inventions and uses of technologies are acts of creativity which can be seen as analogous to God’s power to create. Of course, our technologies are not the only manifestation of our creative capabilities; humans also build societies through the regulation of people’s interactions with one another, and this is equally important. Nevertheless, as our technologies comprise an important creative outlet, maybe we can investigate what we might learn from examining technology as a whole in terms of our relationship with God. Technology is essentially the fashioning and employment of artefacts (for example, a toaster), or systems (for example, bread production and distribution), or concepts (for example, the application of heat to a slice of bread with the intention of favourably changing its state) to order or alter the natural world to the advantage of a user or community of users. Thus, technology is a manifestation of our being made in the image of God, and of our attempts to emulate Him through our own acts of creation. Now, if we are God’s creations, and technologies are our creations, can we usefully say that we, as manifestations of God’s creativity, are like His ‘technology’? Do we have a similar standing in relation to Him as our technologies do to us? I want to expand on this analogy, to see how far it can be extended.

When we invent and develop our technological artefacts, systems and ideas, we use the natural world to create and structure our human world. Electric lighting, for example, alters the natural environment through the artefacts of light bulbs, the systems of electric cables and power stations, and the idea that the world around us should be permanently illuminated, inside and outside, to a certain degree. Because the aim of creating a technology is always to derive some benefit for ourselves, the logical question that arises from our analogy is: what benefit might God gain from creating us that would make the act worthwhile? If we argue that God could not possibly gain anything from us, the alternative is to assert that we were created for our own benefit. But this is circular: we could not have been created from nothing in order to benefit ourselves, as, in our prior state of non-existence, we had no need to derive any benefit from anything. If no-one could sense light, what would be the purpose of street lamps?

So by this analogy, it makes sense to assume that something existed which would derive benefit from our creation. If we say that the rest of creation benefits from the existence of humans, then this does not answer the question, but merely pushes it back; why create the universe in the first place? In short, if we were created only for our own benefit, there would seem to be no point in our having been created at all. This leads to the additional problem of God doing something which has no purpose, and which appears to be redundant. However, is it so problematic to think in terms of humans benefiting God in some way? We might think that it would be, as we know that God is unlimited and all-powerful. However, the British Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, points out in his book The Great Partnership that there is one thing which God can’t do on His own, which is to have a relationship with another free-thinking being (pg. 74). This is not to say that He needs to have such a relationship, or that He gains anything by it, but merely to note that this appears to be a fact. It certainly raises many more questions, such as why God would want such a relationship, but it may go some way to answer the question: what use are human beings?

KKK member and UN peacekeeper: are guns inherently bad? Pictures from Wikimedia Commons.

In addition, observing the development of many types of technologies, for example weapons, reveals two ways of thinking about how we interact with technology in general: firstly technological determinism – the idea that technologies possess some inherent properties which dictate how they are used – and secondly technological instrumentalism – the idea that technologies are completely value-neutral. For example, is a gun an inherently evil artefact? Or can it be used for good purposes as well as bad? Although guns are ultimately designed to kill people, they can be used to enforce the law, or to keep the peace. The same might even be said of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Instrumentalism states that there is no such thing as an inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ technology; a technology’s moral status can be defined only by its use, or by its potential use, and that depends on its user. The technology itself is only a neutral tool, and does not define how we use it. It cannot possess a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moral status, rather it could be used for either good or bad purposes.

Nevertheless, when looking at some technologies, it does appear as if technological artefacts, and more so systems, can define how we use them once we begin to employ them, and can then possess a certain degree of inertia as they spread. This can be seen particularly well in the case of telecommunications technologies such as telephones and telephone networks. Once conceived and propagated a little by their initial creators or users, they might appear to develop independently of their inventors’ original intentions, and begin to shape or change people’s patterns of living. For example, the use of each successive telecommunications technology from the telegraph to the internet-ready smartphone has enabled a faster pace of life. This happens when people become so used to using a technology that they allow themselves to become dependent on it. This in turn leads to the growth and development of the technology, further restricting the activities of the user through their desire to delegate certain functions to the artefact or system, and thus to become more and more reliant on it. This complex feedback loop of users choosing to adopt technologies which then shape them, and the uses of which then feed back into the technologies themselves, is what drives the development of technologies. However, individual users and communities of users are still making choices to use technologies, and such inertia is never entirely unstoppable.

I wonder if this interaction between users and technologies can be compared, through the analogy we are following, with human interaction with the Divine. A famous Talmudic story tells of a disagreement over a point of Jewish law regarding whether an oven of a particular design was ritually clean or unclean (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b). One member of the rabbinical court, Rabbi Eliezer, argued that this particular oven was clean, or fit for use, but the rest of the court all believed it to be unclean. Rabbi Eliezer said that if he was correct, various unnatural events would occur, and all did. Eventually, a Heavenly Voice was heard to speak in support of Rabbi Eliezer’s position, against the other sages, whereupon one of the other sages, Rabbi Joshua, pointed out that Jewish law is not decided on the basis of miraculous occurrence, but on reasoned argument; if the majority believe a certain side of the argument is correct, then this becomes law, regardless of divine interventions. Such unnatural and divine happenings as Rabbi Eliezer was eliciting could not provide evidence for this decision. The Talmud goes on to say that God’s response to this was laughter, and He said “my children have defeated me!” Despite God having made it known that He thought the law should be a certain way, nevertheless He accepted that within the boundaries of the system which He had established and entrusted to mankind, the decision had been taken to rule in another way, and that was to be the law in this instance.

Interpreted in the light of our analogy, are humans part of a system created by God which has developed its own inertia? Do humans have some influence on God, or the ability to overrule Him in matters pertaining to the laws applicable to human beings? Once created, and even more so with a specific element of free will, do we now possess the ability to feed back to our Creator in the same way that human technologies shape our lives? Even if this is not an actual change in His nature (which shouldn’t be possible given His infinite nature), it nevertheless appears to constitute a restriction placed on His actions as a result of His creating a system with established laws, within which we are free to act in certain ways. This is not saying that God is restricted in any necessary way, any more than the human user of a technological artefact or system is required to continue using it; rather both God and the human user have made a choice to adopt a certain mode of being, or lifestyle, and within that choice they have restricted themselves to certain subsequent choices or actions. Thus in choosing to create at all, does God choose also to restrict His range of actions when interacting with his chosen system? Lord Sacks notes in The Great Partnership that, in creating humans with freedom of choice to do either good or evil deeds, God demonstrated more faith in us than we can ever have in Him (pg. 98). This would appear to be true if in creating humans God has chosen in some contingent ways to restrict Himself for our sake.

I am indebted to Rabbi Jason Kleiman of Leeds for teaching me the significance of a fascinating instance in the Torah which I believe is relevant here (Exodus 32:1-14). When Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah, the Israelites miscounted how many days he had been away, and were scared that he was not coming back. They made themselves an idol, a golden calf, to worship instead, which angered God, who threatened to wipe out the entire nation and make a new nation out of Moses alone. Moses successfully entreated God on behalf of the Israelites, and God did indeed pardon the nation (although not without punishing those responsible). The key fact here though is not only that Moses seems to have convinced God to do something other than what He was intending to do, but, even more unusually, he actually had to help God to nullify His own decree (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 32a). Because in vowing to destroy the Israelites, God had made an oath which He could not nullify on His own. Moses, however, pointed out that although God could not annul His own decree, he, Moses, could, and had in fact been commanded to do so (Numbers, 30:3). He demanded that God allow His oath to be annulled, and thus absolved his Creator of His decree against the Israelites (Exodus Rabbah, 43:4).

This is a very powerful idea, which I believe grants some credence to the notion that we as human beings can give or provide something to God. As we create technologies to benefit ourselves, so might God gain from our existence. It is impossible, though, to say what would have been lacking had humans not been present to form the relationship with God which, as Lord Sacks points out, He cannot have on His own. Like technologies, human beings are almost certainly not inherently good or bad, but are capable of good or bad actions depending on their choices, or, often, their upbringing. Might we thus see the creation of the universe and the resulting restrictions God has accepted on Himself as the compromise He has made in order to achieve a goal of a relationship with a free-thinking, creative being? If so, how much does this creation of humanity resemble a technological system which guides and shapes to some extent the actions of its inventors and users, even though the user, either God or humanity, could simply discard the technology if they wish?

Following this analogy, it now appears possible to say that God’s desire to engage in a relationship with free-thinking beings, us, might have required the creation of a system which would place certain contingent (not necessary or permanent) limits on His own actions with regard to the ways in which he could interact with us, His system. This system also needed to allow us a certain degree of autonomy to develop, otherwise we would not be free, which would defy the point. This is the significance of the human element in the deciding of matters of Jewish law. The law is ours to make and apply, by a process of rational argument which is actually very democratising in that anyone can engage with it, without needing some special prophetic or spiritual calling, ie: knowledge more directly from God. But what benefit could God possibly gain from us? One of the most fundamental axioms in Jewish ethical teachings, as prescribed by both the Talmudic sage Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 31a) and by Rabbi Akiva (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, version B, ch. 26, pg. 53) is: what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is based on the Torah commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus, 19:18). It is interesting to me that this seems to be at the heart of the one thing which God, by definition of His oneness, cannot do by Himself.

Indeed, the ancient Jewish oral tradition contains the seemingly counter-intuitive idea that God actually learned things from Moses (Numbers Rabbah, 19:33; I am again grateful to Rabbi Kleiman for this); all three occasions listed in this source concern certain specific interactions between God and humans, which Moses attempted to alter and adjust, and which God accepted, saying “You have taught Me something”. God agreed that the approach or procedure which Moses suggested in each instance was the best way, even overruling His own previous decrees. My tentative conclusion, then, might be to suggest that God created humans in order to love us, although what that means is not necessarily clear. I would welcome feedback on what, as I have said, is ultimately a thought experiment based on the premise that our acts of creation are, on a smaller scale, similar in kind to God’s, and are possible because of our divinely granted ability to think and to create. In other words, if we are God’s toasters, I really hope God loves toast.



2 thoughts on “A tale of two ‘ologies (or: what might we learn about God from a toaster?)

  1. I think this is an interesting post. In your thinking about God creating us to love us, I might suggest that you read Heschel, who argues that God is looking for us and that in our efforts to seek God (through thought or action) we become visible to Him.

    I do think, though, that your equation of God’s creation and humanity’s creation is not quite apt. If we accept Berashit as our base text, then we must accept that God’s creations are all good. Goodness may not have been the a priori state of such creations, but as the Torah recounts each instance of creation, we are told that God sees these creations as good.

    Humanity cannot claim the same record for its creations. I think your characterization of technology as valueless is only partially correct. Let’s take the gun example for a second. Initially, guns were created for hunting and protection. I think that we would have to acknowledge such goals as good (and therefore not valueless). But as technology improved, people have created guns for the sole purpose of killing human beings. Now whether such killing is for protection or for aggression is almost besides the point. Guns created to kill efficiently surely cannot be seen as valueless technology. And surely we cannot believe that the creation of the atom bomb was valueless. Whatever its strategical or tactical needs, the A bomb was created to efficiently kill people. And so, unlike God’s creations, humanity’s creations are not always good.

    Perhaps you might think of God as having created humanity to engage in a sort of exchange with other creators, the way that scientists exchange data. Through observing our creations, and perhaps through prompting a discourse about creation via biblical text and commentary (as well as other forms of ethical discourse), God learns something about creation, something She could not know before the creation of humanity. And perhaps our debates about creation (both sacred and mundane) can make us more mindful of just how God-like our creative acts are, and how such power demands greater reverence and responsibility.

    Posted by erikgreenberg | 26 March, 2012, 9:18 pm
    • Hi Erik, thanks for reading and for your thought-provoking response. I have thought for a while that perhaps I might want to read Heschel. Regarding the disanalogy between human and divine creations, I feel that we might be in danger of conflating separate things: when we discuss human technologies as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, this is a moral judgement based on what we believe to be correct or desirable behaviour. I don’t believe the ‘good’ in Bereishit refers to morality. Rather it signifies that that which was created was as God intended it to be, which is meant to teach us the lesson that the world is as it is because a Creator actively willed that it be that way Maybe we can then question, or do what we want with the knowledge,but the important thing is that this was how God wanted the world to be.

      The question of technological determinism vs. instrumentalism has long been debated by philosophers of technology. Regarding weapons, I think we again need to separate a couple of strands: firstly instrumentalism implies merely that the technological artefact (or system) in and of itself does not guide action one way or another. If guns were first made for hunting or protection (and I suspect there was probably an element of gaining a tactical military advantage over enemies in there as well, which you might well call ‘bad’), then even so I would say that the values lay with the inventors, not with the artefact, which could subsequently be used for an entirely different purpose by an individual with a different value set. If first it was used only for protection, someone else could use it for attack, or vice versa.

      In addition, we are looking here at killing being an entirely bad thing. Taking our morality from the Torah, the Israelites and the Jews have at times had to kill, and have indeed been commanded to do so by God. Is this morally wrong, or ‘bad’? Thus, the atom bomb, which is very good at killing things, can still be good or bad. Were we to have for example the command to wipe out Amalek still in full foce today (and it is arguable that it is only a matter of the contingencies of historical circumstance that we do not), the atom bomb might be a pretty effective way of going about it. Furthermore, in being designed as a devastatingly effective weapon, it does not necessarily follow that its creators ever intended it actually to be used (in fact, reading up on the Manhatten Project, I get the impression that most of them were against using it on the Japanese; it was rather a political decision to drop the bomb). Many such military technologies in the past have been heralded as the bringers of peace, because with them around no-one would dare wage war anymore.

      So I would still argue that it is the human agent which possesses the moral values, not the technologies. Between these two points, then, I would argue that we have no grounds to suppose we should be assigning human moral values to God’s creations (at least not on the basis of textual evidence), and likewise human technologies remain valueless, and thus the analogy holds.

      I appreciate your final point, and it was something I was driving at myself. You put it very well; I wonder if God can learn about humans…

      Thanks again!

      Posted by Michael Kay | 26 March, 2012, 11:56 pm

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