Technology makes us comfortable but it can’t make us happy

With technology, things become faster, more convenient and we are increasingly delivered from the struggle to merely survive.

All of this is to be celebrated. But where we go wrong, and we perhaps entrench our sadness and anxiety, is in thinking that this deliverance is equivalent to a fulfilment of human happiness and meaning.

A scientific method may, as Sam Harris insists, help source ethical facts about right and wrong. But even if we grant that, the scientific method can’t help us act on such facts or integrate them into our character.

artificial-intelligence

It’s one thing to know what’s right, and another thing entirely to act on what’s right. The whole history of literature and drama stems from this unfortunate fact.

Technology frees us from the struggle to survive. But it does not help us carry the burden of life, once our survival is secure. The burden of life comes from responsibility, the weight of choice, and guilt and self-determination.

This feeling of responsibility may emerge from an illusion of free will, but it is a very heavy and persuasive illusion. The proposition that we might not have true free will, does nothing to alleviate the weight of responsibility.

Technology makes our lives better. We have come to believe however, that guaranteeing survival should mark the end of pain and sadness.

This is a bourgeois conceit. Suffering is not something that can be eliminated by more efficient or pleasant surviving. Neither is a lack of suffering desirable or even possible.

The greatest mystery of all is the human inner space, human interior. Even if we conclude, and it would only be speculative, that the human soul, the experience of an inner psyche, is illusory, it would still be a very heavy source of pain and mystery as to why so much of our experience, such a big part of ourselves and our instinctual ideas about life are grounded in illusion.

That’s the real question. It is all very well for the positivist to say that what we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence, but that’s impossible. Most of human culture has been an attempt to speak of what it is impossible to articulate. The reason for this is that our sense of self is a visceral one; illusion or not, it feels very much real.

So the task of any atheist and positivist and hyper-mundane materialist, is to explain why so much that is important to human beings is just a fiction, a delusion, a self-serving fantasy.

To simply accept that it is, is not only to avoid the question at hand, it is to pour scorn on curiosity and mystery itself, and as a result, it is to pour scorn on life.

This is the nihilist’s position, and in the short term, it is a comfortable one, because it avoids any conflict of certainties – the certainty of the inner experience, versus the certainty of the outer knowledge.

Far better to simply conclude that humanity is a deluded and infantile race, capable only of cunning and daydreaming; and to claim that the only real achievements of human culture have been acute observations of the world.

The technological mindset depends on these trenchant conclusions. The world is a machine itself, and all experiences of religion, mysticism and imagination are the product of superstition.

Ultimately, the technological mindset is a utopian one, as dangerous as any social utopianism, because it is predicated on the insistence that all problems are solvable, that all unhappiness can be turned into happiness and that all melancholy and depression is a result of bad thinking.

To place the mystery of human experience centre stage again, to set the imagination and the unfathomable sublime alongside science, would be to concede that there are some things we cannot know, that are essentially outwith the boundaries of method and analysis.

That’s not to say Sam Harris and his like are wrong – science can indeed give us a picture of the human good.

But that does not solve the ethical question as it exists on the frontline of human action. That question being, why do we persist in doing the wrong thing even though we know it is wrong?

This is a question technology has not answered, and can’t ever have a hope of answering.

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