The Evolutionary Epistemology of the Technosphere

Technology and science are deeply interwoven. Often, this is interpreted in terms of scientific progress driving the emergence of new technologies. But historians of science have always emphasized the fact that science is also enabled by technology that is generated outside the epistemic venture of science. For example, artisanal advances in watchmaking contributed to the creation of more precise devices of measurement, and scientific experiments are impossible without measurement (Mokyr 2009). The hallmark of modern science, the experiment, is itself a technology that is only partly based on science but on engineering, artisanal tinkering and sometimes even creative manipulations and coincidences: Barad (2007) even approaches the experiment as a performative act. What counts is whether the result, the experimental set up, can be repeated by others having the same skills.

Hence, we can say that technology is a powerful mediator of how we see the world: The technosphere is a vast extension of the human cognitive system, which is in turn distributed across epistemic communities. This raises an intricate question: Is our scientific progress only determined by our scientific prowess, or does the technosphere have an autonomous epistemic role, insofar it follows its own evolutionary logic? Is our scientific picture of the world only our own making, or do we think ‘through’ the technosphere when doing science?

I raise this question because if technology is an important enabler of scientific research, how about the idea of progress of scientific knowledge? This progress would also depend on whether technological evolution is progressing. The proverbial drunkard who looks for the lost key where the light is may be the proper metaphor for the scientist who searches for the truth where the technosphere allows us to discern supposed realities. This may work if we are also the ones who can shift the light where we expect to find answers to our questions. But what if we just follow an evolutionary track that has no relation whatsoever with our lofty epistemic goals?

Evolutionary economists and theorists of technology have elaborated some basic principles of technological evolution (seminal contributions were Ziman 2000 and Arthur 2009). I want to highlight two.

The first is that most technological progress is driven by recombination of existing technologies. Recombinatorial evolution has the important mathematical property that the state space of possible combinations always grows faster than the exponentially growing space of realized combinations (Weitzman 1998). That means, the further technology advances, the larger the space of possible technologies that we simply never come to know. These are the famous Rumsfeld ‘unknown unknowns’. Science may reveal the constraints of the state space (say, no velocities above speed of light), but otherwise there is an overwhelmingly large space of technologies that we will never discover in a finite time span, simply because the space is expanding faster than our current technological knowledge.

The second is that engineering is mostly driven by solving technologies problems by inventing new technologies (Petroski 1996). This implies that technological evolution is highly localized and path-dependent in a radical way, since even the problems evolve endogenously. This is enhanced by the economic constraints on developing new technologies, also in the narrower context of investing into extremely expensive experimental devices such as particle accelerators.

If we take both observations together, we must conclude that there is no necessary reason that technological evolution moves towards the direction of scientific progress, in the sense of gradually improving our knowledge about the world. To the opposite, there is a high probability that autonomous technological evolution will miss those possible technologies that would contribute most to the growth of scientific knowledge. This may even include the possibility that we get stuck in false pictures of the world despite acting successfully in terms of applied science-based technology.

I suggest generalizing over this conclusion. Our view on the world is mediated by the technosphere. This is especially true for all phenomena that we cannot directly access with our endowed powers of perception. For example, we experience a hot summer day, but we cannot experience ‘global warming’. The climate is what Morton (2013) calls a ‘hyperobject’. We can only learn about this object by complex methods of measurement and data analysis which are all enabled by the technosphere, i.e., technological enablement of scientific research. In this sense, ‘global warming’ is an epistemic object that is created by the technosphere. Tellingly, our ideas about how to meet the challenge of climate change are also driven by technosphere evolution: We search for engineering solutions on various scales, from electric cars to carbon capture. But as stated previously, we never know whether what results from that effort is the best technology that meets the challenge. To the contrary, there is the possibility that the autonomous evolution of the technosphere moves towards technologies that even worsen the global warming condition. This hunch is based on the simple idea that it is the growth of the technosphere itself that is the cause of global warming (as articulated in previous posts, such as James Dyke’s).

Is there a solution to this conundrum? I think there is. We must regain our epistemic autonomy from the technosphere. That means, we must rely on purely human epistemic powers. The classical domain where this has been pursued throughout the history of civilization is philosophy. We must reinstate philosophy as the Queen of all science. For practical matters, this means, for example, that we should rely on the powers of philosophy to meet the challenge of global warming, in the first place. As I argued in previous posts, for example, the move to geocentric thinking is mainly a philosophical move, and less a scientific one, though informed by modern science. Science cannot help us in taking the position of other beings in the biosphere to judge which actions are most preferable in sustaining our planet.

References

Arthur, W. Brian (2009): The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, New York: Free Press.

Barad, Karen M. (2007): Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke UP.

Mokyr, Joel (2009): The Enlightened Economy: Britain and the Industrial Revolution 1700-1850, London: Penguin.

Morton, Timothy (2013): Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Petroski, Henry (1996): Invention by Design: How Engineers Get From Thought to Think, Cambridge, MA, USA and London: Harvard University Press.

Weitzman, Martin L. (1998): ‘Recombinant Growth’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, CXIII(2), 331–360.

Ziman, J. (ed) (2000): Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process, Cam­bridge UP.

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