Philosophy, Technology

Apply the why: what can we learn about humans from a toaster?

In most areas of enquiry, whether in the humanities, the sciences, or any other discipline, the questions we ask determine the knowledge we gain about our chosen subject; the art of asking questions is therefore very important. As we only learn anything new in these areas if we decide to research and ask questions about a certain event or phenomenon, disciplines are very much shaped by our ability to formulate questions. It thus occurred to me to think about the kinds of questions which we can legitimately ask to gain the most insight into the two main spheres of the world around us, the natural, physical sphere – the realm of particles and waves, and of chemical reactions, and of ecosystems – and the human sphere – the realm of ideas, of interactions, and of civilisations.

I believe there are two different types of questions which we can ask, closed questions and open questions. Into the first category fall questions such as “what?” and “where?” and “when?”. The answers to these will essentially be single, simple facts. What? A big battle. Where? Hastings. When? 1066. These questions can be asked of anything, be it an artefact or a person, a system or a society, or a method or a belief. And, whether or not we can actually know the answer definitely, we are sure that there does exist a true answer. For example, even if we lack the historical sources or the scientific equipment to properly describe a historical event or scientific phenomenon, we know that such a description is, at least theoretically, possible. The historical event happened. The phenomenon does exist. But these answers are limited, and finite. Once we know the fact, if we can know it, we do know the answer in full.

The second type of question is more open, and more difficult to answer exhaustively. Into this category fall the questions of “how?” and “why?”. I believe that the first of these looks to the past, and the second to the future. Firstly, when we ask how something works, or how it came to be a certain way, we are asking about the sequence of events which led to its being the way it is when we encounter it. We are asking about the processes which make it do what it does. In order to answer a “how?” question, we need to combine the answers to many different “what?” “where?” and “when?” questions. If we ask, for example, how a plant grows, or how a toaster works, there will need to be many levels to our answer. We might answer that the plant gets bigger as its cells divide, contributing to the mass of the stem or branches, or that the toaster heats bread slices when its metal filaments get hot.

However, these are not the full answers which we gained in the case of the “what?” “where?” and “when” questions. In the case of the plant, in order to properly understand how it grows we must now explain how cells replicate, and also the process of photosynthesis, by which the plant converts sunlight into chemical energy. In the case of the toaster, we must explain the properties of metal which allow it to become hot, and then we must explain how electricity makes it hot. These in turn will not give us complete answers, because we would then need to understand the underlying laws that govern the molecular processes involved in the plant, and ultimately the structure and behaviour or subatomic matter. To understand the toaster, we ultimately need to explain electricity itself, as well as the entire electrical infrastructure which allows the toaster to work when we plug it into the wall. “How?” questions, therefore, require a combination of the elements of “what?” “where?” and “when?”, and may only be fully answered holistically.

What can we learn about society from this kind of toast…?

Secondly, asking “why?” also requires an answer with multiple levels. “Why?” questions look to the future, because they ask about purpose. Answering why a toaster works is relatively easy. On a basic level: someone wants toast. Answering why a plant grows would be difficult for a person who was trying to answer it within a scientific framework. The difference is the existence of intention. Science does not allow for teleological explanations, that is, answers which resort to purpose or intention in order to understand a phenomenon in the physical world. For someone religious who was looking for evidence of a plan or ultimate goal for human beings or for the physical universe, the “why?” question may be answered by recourse to intention, most probably the intention of God, or of multiple gods. But this has no place in the scientific study of the natural, physical world. It is not the purpose of science to seek a science of purpose.

So at this point we must divide the world into two spheres, as mentioned in the beginning; in one of these we can ask “why?”, and in the other we cannot. On the one hand, there is the natural world, the environment independent of our technology. This is the sphere of mountains and chemical reactions, seas and subatomic particles, earthquakes and electromagnetic forces, animals and weather systems. On the other hand there is the human world, the built environment. This is the sphere of cities and telephones, ideas and beliefs, particle accelerators and space stations, and, of course, toasters. Here we can ask “why?”, because all human activities, especially technological endeavours, are driven by some form of intention which we can trace back and use to understand purpose.

I once read a very simple idea about this which has stayed with me; it was written by an Oxford historian and philosopher called Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943) in a little book which was published in 1939, and simply called An Autobiography. The idea was in essence this: that anything which is the outcome of a thought process, be it an idea, a piece of text, or an object, that outcome is the solution to a problem. It is the answer to a question which was originally asked about the subject to which the idea, text or object relates. Thus, when we encounter anything in the human sphere, which has been generated as the result of a thought process, we can ask “why?” and so attempt to determine its purpose, and the intention behind it.

In so doing, we also uncover a lot about the originator of the intention. By this action of reverse engineering, we can see the priorities and purposes of the original inventor or thinker. Technologies are the result of thought processes which started with a question or problem: they started with a “how?”. Someone asked themselves: how can I carry out a certain function, or how can I do it better (where better is subjectively defined as whatever was beneficial to that person)? In asking “why?” of technologies and the built environment, we are seeking the original question to which the system, artefact or idea was intended to provide the answer, the problem to which it was the solution.

At a very basic level, we can learn from the toaster about a society which values its nutrition supplied in warm, crispy, consistent slices, and definitely with rapid convenience. As our scope broadens and our curiosity grows, we can look at the systems of the world around us and ask for which purpose they are best suited. I try to do something like this in my own research when I examine telephones and exchange networks. I ask what the instruments reveal about the individuals, and what the system reveals about the society. Similarly we can ask why a fork has so many prongs, and the specific curved shape which it possesses, or why some garden walls are taller or shorter than others, or why groups of houses are laid out in the patterns they are in different places.

At which point does nature become technology?

Sometimes, the boundary between the purely natural environment and the technological human environment is blurry. A plant in the rainforest is natural, and a toaster in a kitchen is human, but there is a grey area between these two spheres, which is resolved by considering intention and purpose. A tree, for example, growing in a forest, is not an example of human technology. Neither is a tree planted by a human. However, a tree, or a set of trees, planted by a human in a specific place at a specific time, and for a specific purpose – to demarcate a piece of land such as a field maybe – is an example of the built environment. The tree becomes technology. Likewise, a stick is not a technology until an idea is applied to it, an intention, a purpose.

I would like to extend this idea also to the realm of human beliefs and opinions, as these are also solutions to problems. In his 1976 book Knowledge and Social Imagery, the philosopher of science David Bloor argued that when looking historically at the development of scientific knowledge, it is important not to pass judgement on specific theories or truth claims as being true or false. At the time they were being promoted, of course, it was not clear what would be accepted as true. Rather we should approach both the proponents and opponents of various historical scientific theories in the same way in order to better understand how scientific ideas have developed over time. Similarly, when confronted by an opposing viewpoint to our own, we should apply the “why?” to better understand the rationale behind the other person’s beliefs and opinions. This is a much more constructive and helpful approach than derision, as well as being more respectful.

Asking “why?” of technologies or ideas is a way for us to uncover the original “how?” that led someone to develop an artefact or mode of thought in the first place. Everything within the human sphere can, and should, be questioned in this way; everything we see around us in the human environment was built, and social structures were put in place for reasons, with intention. They are, or were at one time, solutions to problems. Consider an alien with no knowledge of humanity landing in a kitchen, and attempting to reason out, from whatever it could find, what kinds of beings we are. I wonder what it would think about our form, our lifestyles, and our behaviour. There is a lot of information in the objects and systems around us, and, to an objective observer, even our kitchenware is talking about us.



5 thoughts on “Apply the why: what can we learn about humans from a toaster?

  1. That is an interesting question on when nature becomes technology. There is sort of two parts to that. One is does the item still function towards its own goals, so a tree planted in a wind break is still reproducing normally, but a wheat plant is totally dependent on humans for propagation. Another part is how much transformation has occurred. For example a twig used to extract termites from a mound is still a twig chemically, just the outer form has changed. On the other hand, a computer chip has the molecules chosen to the parts per million or better range, and the placement of parts to better than one micron, so it is very artificial.

    A couple years ago at work, I looked around and realized that with the exception of a spider plant, nothing that I could see was in any sense recognizably natural.

    Posted by Joshua Cogliati | 18 May, 2012, 1:03 pm
  2. Hi Joshu, thanks for this! You’re right, when I look around at the built environment there is very little which we can say is natural. Even your spider plant, I would be willing to bet, was placed there as part of an attempt to control the space, maybe by producing oxygen for, or possibly psychologically placating, the workforce…

    I think I would define technology loosely as one of three categories: either an artefact (a watch), a system (the central supply of water, gas or electricity), and an idea or technique (the extraction of termites from a hole using a stick).

    An artefact is simple to understand. We have taken something from the natural world, or from that which has already been designed and built, and made it into something useful, with varying degrees of complexity, from a flint axe to a mobile phone. A system is not quite the same kind of thing as simply a collection of artefacts, but I would argue that it was different in kind and not simply in degree, as the idea of the group of artefacts having a collective purpose is itself more sophisticated. The third category, technique, is a bit more abstract, but in many ways simpler, and it is this which makes the twig or the tree into a technology, because only a method is being developed and applied, but at the most basic level the natural, raw material does not need to change much or at all, as when monkeys use rocks to crack nuts.

    I believe the basic common factor in technologies is the utilisation of something for the benefit of the user, and it is this intention which really defines technology.

    Thanks again!


    Posted by Michael Kay | 18 May, 2012, 1:54 pm
  3. Hi Michael,

    Very interesting synopsis. I find it interesting that you used a toaster and it got me to thinking of why we wanted our bread toasted in the first place. I like to think that we are connected to everything, including technology, though herein lies the problem with our innate nature to manipulate and control everything around us. Time and time again we are shown that we cannot and will never be able to control the world we inhabit.

    I recently watched part of a documentary on the robotics being used in warfare. I am thinking about your last line “and it is the intention which really defines technology”. The intention for robotics in warfare I find incredibly frightening as its only purpose is to kill.

    I really believe that technology can exist very much so with the natural world around us and the natural world in my view is always around us. Very interesting view point though.


    Posted by Nancy Pilling | 25 May, 2012, 6:30 pm
    • Hi Nancy, thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it! You raise an interesting point: our desire to toast our bread is even more intriguing when we realise how, for probably thousands of years, bread must have been one of the most complicated, and not particularly intuitive, foodstuffs to make. To produce baked goods in general must have been a very lengthy, energy expensive process. And I wonder how people first realised that you could mix things up like that and it would eventually go fluffy? And yet now we say ‘that’s not enough, I want to apply another process to this sequence!’

      Fortunately or otherwise, military concerns drive a lot of technological advances. Whether we could have achieved them without killing each other I don’t know. Whether they’re actually worth human life, I’m also not sure. Feeling safe and secure is definitely a very basic need, though, like eating, sleeping and reproducing. All of these things bring out our creativity, whether it’s to produce medicines, weapons or the fashion industry. I think it’s our job to ask ‘why?’ and then to assess the intention and decide whether or not we find a good enough answer. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

      Thanks again!


      Posted by Michael Kay | 25 May, 2012, 7:57 pm
  4. Just wanted to draw the attention of anyone interested in the topic of this article, the nature of technology, to this article by the veteran historian of science Steven Shapin on old and new technologies on the New Yorker website.



    Posted by Michael Kay | 3 October, 2012, 11:05 pm

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