Technology and Natural Law

Source: The National Archives (UK) (CC)

After many years away, natural law is returning to the fore of political and legal thought in America and in the West. But few have focused attention on the superficially unlikely source of that renewal—the global triumph of digital technology.

Still more remarkable, at first glance, the great evidence for the digital roots of the return of natural law is on display right now in China. Deep disagreements divide even top China analysts in the US when it comes to the true nature or natures of the regime in Beijing.

There is no doubt that, whatever Xi Jinping’s true beliefs about the relationship between nature and the law, the propagandistic and ideological character of his imposition of Xi Jinping Thought as a foundation of Chinese statecraft is at fundamental odds with the spiritual and religious character of Daoism. Therefore, China’s approach toward the political problem of technology is better understood through the lens of Daoism and natural law.

Daoism and Technology

As Yuk Hui, author of The Question Concerning Technology in China, has suggested, the Chinese “cosmotechnics”—the deep worldview with which its tech is infused—centers on the relation between dao, which we might call the way of natural life, and qi, which we might call the tools of human life.  

For Daoists, Hui comments, “Dao is neither nothing nor being, but rather the principle according to which an oppositional continuity is maintained. It is a recursive movement that maintains the continuity between a set of oppositional pairs: in cosmology, the continuity between ‘wu’ (nothing) and ‘you’ (being/having); in metaphysics, that between ‘ti’ (body) and ‘yong’ (use); in the philosophy of life, that between ‘tian’ (heaven) and ‘ren’ (human); and in social and political life and cosmotechnics, that between dao and qi.”

Hui goes on to say that, “like the Chinese, the ancient Greeks also saw these oppositions in existence. The fundamental difference, however, which still echoes all these centuries later, is that the Greeks saw a discontinuity or contradiction instead of continuity or harmony in these forces.”

Trying to avoid overgeneralization, Hui concludes that, “in Chinese philosophy, there is no search for being or eternal form that we see, for example, in Plato’s eidos, the permanent reality that makes a thing what it is, or Aristotle’s more empirical morphe, or form. It is all the relational flux of becoming, not an arrest into a defined form of some essential being.”

What matters most from an American point of view is not how perfect or imperfect is Hui’s assessment of Plato and Aristotle, but Hui’s explanation of how China’s relational grasp of being results in an approach to technology different from the one that now fosters so much anxiety in the West. This is despite the West being the creator and, perhaps until recently, the runaway beneficiary of digital technology.

Hui discusses Heidegger’s philosophy, for instance, as a response to Heidegger’s conclusion that the triumph of cybernetics meant the destruction of the fundamental antinomy between soul and machine. Despite Heidegger’s disinclination (or refusal) to re-found Western philosophy in Eastern philosophy, a move made by a vast array of British and American scientists and intellectuals in the late twentieth century, Hui still sees in Heidegger’s effort to redescribe the ancient Greek techne as the disclosure of being something deeply resonant with the Daoist approach to technology—one that always situates tech within a greater and larger cosmic reality, rather than one that, as many dominant Western thinkers advocate today, ultimately sees infinite technological progress as our posthuman destiny.

In short, Hui suggests that China still has a powerful and today ascendent religious and cultural tradition that gives the Chinese sufficient resources to ensure both humans and nature or the cosmos are not reduced to technologies or destroyed by technology.

China and the West

On its surface, this appears to be grounds for praise of the West’s most powerful Eastern-influenced thinkers and scientists, who since virtually the beginning of the electric age have been sharply inclined to jettison classical philosophy on the grounds that it is too entangled with biblical theology. For them, Aristotle’s soul led to that of Aquinas, just as Christianity as a whole, per Nietzsche, amounted to little more than “Platonism for the masses.”

But the soul has emerged over the ensuing decades as perhaps the primary stumbling block for such thinkers and scientists. Not only does it irritatingly imply the existence of God, it frustrates their posthuman designs, which they see as the only project worth laboring toward and the only one justifying our continued fraught existence. For them, if Eastern religion offers a way to get Westerners out of the mindset that they have all-precious souls the protection of which imposes fundamental and even sacred limits on technological advancement, so much the better; but beyond that, no religion offers them much to savor.

For this reason, a vacuum opened up in Western thought after Heidegger: it had become unclear what if any cosmological understanding in the West could defeat the technologization of life and the destruction of the soul and of nature. Eastern-influenced thought resulted in plenty of chastisement of human excess, especially with regard to nature, but it wound up decisively in the service of pushing people to conclude humanity itself, with its outmoded religious, was the problem, a problem that only open-ended technological advancement could solve. Despite Heidegger’s massive insight into the nature of the problem, he was utterly unable to produce a school of thought capable of prevailing against it.

The same could be said of his great philosophical rival, Leo Strauss, whose main intellectual descendants, in the face of their own inability to sweep back the sea of technologization, have too often retreated into a bespoke kind of teacake Nietzscheanism. Strauss himself did manage to reintroduce into the academic consciousness the stubbornness of nature as a factor in both the history of intellectual thought and of philosophy in any age. But the main source of authoritative teachings on the hard limits imposed on human will, and the manner in which those limits arise from and operate within nature, was not political philosophy, which focused in America for understandable reasons on natural right. Rather, political theologians, including those treating the law as part of a theoretically coherent politico-theological whole, filled the vacuum opened in Heidegger’s wake by retrieving Western doctrines of natural law from the premodern era.

Or, at least, they attempted to fill that vacuum. Until very recently, the overwhelming attitude in America, at the highest levels and across the most powerful institutions, was one of complete indifference or hostility toward natural law.

The Natural Law Answer to Technology

What changed? What is changing? The answer, I wish to suggest, is simple: digital technology has taken over the world—to a degree that now makes mercilessly clear two momentous things. First, no human person or group of persons is capable anymore of taking the rule of the world away from digital technology. Second, if no people are capable of re-founding their own regimes on a basis that asserts their human rule over the regimes and the digital technology within them, then our digital technologies will disrupt the human space and time we need for politics to exist. So far, distributed databases have enabled hardware and software to interact synchronously without regard to human time zones or planetary cycles of time; soon, 5G networks will further empower machines and programs to communicate with zero latency–that is, instantaneously worldwide, as if no distance stretched between them. This digital transcendence of human space and time already radically challenges the claims of political leaders to unique and unsurpassed expertise at best ordering human affairs. Not only does it suggest that technology might do better what established experts do to assert and defend their privileges; so too does it call into question what, if anything, such advanced technology leaves for ordinary people to busy themselves doing in the realm of politics or law. 

In the face of this prospect, so heavy with dread, it is clear that rights language, and especially the worship of rights, will not suffice. It is further clear that nature will not suffice so long as it is used as a cudgel to demoralize the people, beating out of them both their pride in their humanity and their humility in our ensouled, incarnate creaturehood.

What is needed therefore is a theoretically authoritative and robust account of how nature is not a demiurge that points in judgment toward the necessity of our posthumanity, nor is a sort of cosmic escape hatch that offers spiritual release from the labors of responsibility toward our technologies and their use, but is rather a given order, one within which we are inextricably and intimately situated, that functions in intelligible ways to limit our will and perhaps even correct our behavior, even despite our myriad efforts to defy and deny that function.

This, in short, is natural law. Unfortunately, natural law of late has been subject to a few serious complications that have so far significantly blunted its salutary power as a symbol against anti-human technologization in the West. One is the ongoing tension between natural law theorists who wish to retain, versus those who wish to reject, natural right.

Another complication, related but still more relevant, concerns the influence over scholars, friendly to natural law, preoccupied with the collapse of virtue. For these thinkers, “after virtue” would have to come law, law potent enough to ensure a modicum of order among remnants having to relearn virtue or masses that practically speaking could only be counted on to learn to obey. Today, it is clear that the dominant form of post-virtue law is now the digital automated law of the social credit system, one in which machines make people who have lost their virtue obey and enforce new artificial law.

Natural law thought is obliged to do its best to head off this scenario, which highlights how, even in a world of decaying virtue, jettisoning natural right in favor of automated law destroys the very humanity it is intended to save.

But what is key is that natural law thinkers have a particular good reason to welcome this work and make the wager it entails. Contrary to initial appearances, the dominance of digital technology in our world of faltering virtue and artificial law is re-forming human souls toward a retrieval of virtue—for good and for ill, as the confused rise of woke “virtue signaling” and virtue policing, alongside a resurgence among the young of various and sometimes conflicting ethics of virtue on the right, reveals.

The return of virtue comes apace with growing disenchantment toward artificial law imposed by “experts” who seem so unable to explain what is happening or what we should do that their exhaustive (and often irreplicable) explanations have had the opposite of the intended effect and provoked a systemic epistemological crisis.

This is a golden opportunity for a swift and robust renaissance of natural law thought. Indeed, if some of the foremost theologically inclined theorists of media technologies, such as Marshall and Eric McLuhan, are correct, digital technology itself will continue to have surprising retrieval effects, independent of the intent of any school of thought, with regard to premodern natural law doctrines. America’s irreducible pluralism and longing for unity stand in an uneasy tension and impose serious social and political burdens. Yet, America remains the world’s last best hope where preserving human flourishing through shared labor and reciprocal action, in concert with natural right and natural law, remains plausible.

James Poulos is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.
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