Descartes on the Purpose of Technology and the Body

As part of her dissertation research, my wife is looking at how Dostoevsky viewed and critiqued some of Descartes’s ideas. In doing so, she stumbled upon the following passage in which Descartes tangentially addresses technology, saying that the mind can produce tools which will one day offer us a “trouble-free” bodily existence:

“knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens and all other bodies that surround us, just as distinctly as we know the skills of our craftsmen, we might be able, in the same way, to use them for all the purposes for which they are appropriate, and thus render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature. This is desirable not only for the invention of an infinity of devices that would enable one to enjoy trouble-free the fruits of the earth and all the goods found there, but also principally for the maintenance of health, which unquestionably is the first good and the foundation of all the other goods of this life, for even the mind depends so greatly on the temperament and the disposition of the organs of the body.” (Discourse on Method, 35 [1637])

In Philosophy 101, we all learned that Descartes distrusted the body and its senses so much that he concluded the only thing he could know for sure was that his mind existed (i.e. “I think, therefore I am.”). But that was always just a philosophical idea about the knowledge and knowing, right?

The reason I find this quote so fascinating is that it shows Descartes’s philosophical ideas trickling into what he thought about the real physical world. He doesn’t outright deny that the body is good, but he seems to tetering just a few steps aways from the real world kinds of ideas that futurists and posthumanists talk about today.

While Descartes is simply saying that our minds can produce technology that makes life easier (which is obviously true, see Gen 3:7), Ray Kurzweil sees the ultimate purpose of technology not in terms of helping the body, but as actually doing away with the body altogether so that we are exist as pure mind:

One of the key ideas here is that, as you mentioned, we’ll be able to capture human intelligence in a non-biological system–a machine, if you will. (NPR Interview, 2005)

So What?

I doubt many of us dream of uploading our minds onto eternal inorganic substrates. We don’t want to literally escape the body like Kurzweil, or even philosophically like Descartes. But this basic way of thinking – that the physical body’s main purpose is feeling ecstasy and helping the mind escape – seems to be deeply woven into many of our modern patterns of life.

In a world that has both technology which performs all of our physical tasks (cars, dish washers, tractors, etc.) and now our mental tasks (math, memory, etc.), we might again ask questions:

What is the purpose of the body?
What is the meaning of physical presence?

For some initial discusion, I’d like to recommend my friend Matt Anderson‘s book Earth Vessels which kickstarts quite a few conversations about the body. And, when it’s ready, I’d also recommend my wife’s dissertation to see what Dostoevsky had to say about the embodied life. For now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite sections of his Brother’s Karamozov:

If all men abandon you and even drive you away by force, then when you are left alone fall on the earth and kiss it, water it with your tears and it will bring forth fruit even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude. Believe to the end, even if all men went astray and you were left the only one faithful; bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. And if two of you are gathered together — then there is a whole world, a world of living love. Embrace each other tenderly and praise God, for if only in you two His truth has been fulfilled.

5 Things I Learned From “Reading” 10 Audiobooks

Not Enough Time

Last spring, I was finding that I just didn’t have enough time to read several books that I really wanted to read. Then a friend reminding me about something called “audiobooks.” Because I have a long commute, I had always wanted to try audiobooks, but I had dismissed them because I didn’t want to keep track of CDs, tapes, or synced files.

But since I last looked into audiobooks, two things lowered the barrier of entry for me. First, smartphone apps like audible.com take out all the work of managing physical media or syncing files. Second, my wife got me an aftermarket Bluetooth car kit last year which makes using audio books in the car much safer and more pleasant.

The “Reading” List

As a result, I “read” a number of books that I might have otherwise missed and experimented along the way with which books I would get the most out of. (It seems that the joke about whether or not you really “read” an audiobook never gets old.)

  1. Love Wins by Rob Bell – This was the book that kicked things off for me because I knew I needed to read it quickly to stay in the know. It was a great start because it was only a few hours long, and Bell himself reads it so I could hear exactly want he wanted to communicate. A few laps around my neighborhood, and I was up to date on the controversy of 2011.
  2. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas – I missed this book in 2010 when it came out, and I really wanted to catch up. I was worried that I might lose interest since it was over 20 hours long and is theologically rich. But it turned out to be a wonderful listening experience, both because the story of Bonhoeffer’s life is so riveting and powerful and because Metaxas and the reader did such outstanding work.
  3. 1776 by David McCullough – Next, I thought I’d try hitting up an older book that I had always wanted to read, but never took the initiative to actually do something about. Like Bonhoeffer’s biography, this one is a little bit dense when it comes to historical detail, but the strength of the story and the author’s telling of it made it a great audiobook (bonus: it’s read by McCullough himself and his voice is fantastic).
  4. 52 Things Kids Need from a Dad: What Fathers Can Do to Make a Lifelong Difference by Jay Payleitner – At this point, everything I listened to was for my own theological enrichment, so I decided to see if I could get into something that might help me be a better dad. Payleitner’s book is 52 fun stories about things he learned as a dad, and mostly boils down to the simple but important advice: “Show up, and take initiative.” This was the first book where I really should have had some way to jot down a few notes about things I wanted to be sure to take away.
  5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig – This time I went out on a limb. I’d always wanted to read Zen, but I knew there was no way I would get to it except in the car. It’s an absolutely fascinating book both in form and content (which is part of Persig’s whole point), and it was interesting to consume it another form. However, I did listen to the abridged version, and I’m not sure I would had made it through the entire book.
  6. The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson – I had met Peterson just a few months before, sharing a breakfast with him one morning and taking communion from him the next evening. But before listening to this book, I really didn’t know much about him other than that he wrote The MessageThe Pastor was a perfect introduction to his thought and life which are intertwined. In fact, there’s probably no way to understand his conception of church and community without the real portrait of how he actually lived in it.
  7. The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs – I was about to get Jacob’s newer book on reading, but at the last second I decided it would be fun to hear Lewis’ story since I’m starting to read his works to my kids. It was a great choice.
  8. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction – David Sheff’s retelling of his son’s addiction was probably the hardest to stomach and the most eye-opening in story of the bunch. It introduced me to a world of horrors I only tangentially knew existed.
  9. ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First Computer by Scott McCartney – A friend recommended this and again, I found that a good story can make history come alive on audio no matter how boring the material might seem.
  10. Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know by Meg Meeker – This is a wonderful book, but it’s a departure from the others in one important aspect. While Meeker does tell some stories, much of the book is data driven which I found harder to consume in audio. Some of the data is rather bleak so I didn’t always find myself looking forward to listening, but still it’s important stuff, and I’m glad I was able to consume the material one way or another.
  11. The Hunger Games by Susan Collins – With this one, I’m right back where I started. That is, I’m back to listening to a book that is culturally relevant like Love Wins. I have to admit, I had a blast listening to this story, and the first person narrative really works as an audiobook. If I were still a youth pastor, I’d have to do something on this and compare it to Esther.

What I Learned

Each of the books has their own strengths, but below are some reflections I’ve had on the medium of audiobooks.

  1. Lowering Barriers of Entry
    When you want to make a change in habits, one of the most important things you can do to ensure it will last is to reduce remove as many barriers as possible. In this case, an iPhone and a car with BlueTooth made audiobooks impossibly easy for me to try.But the same idea also applied to me starting back up with my running. When I setup the coffee maker the night before, put out running clothes (including gloves and a hat when needed), and turn on my alarm, I don’t have any excuses for not going in the morning.
  2. Redeeming the Time
    I drive about 3o minutes each way to and from work. I can use that time to pray, think, eat, or talk on the phone, but there’s not much I can do to make it shorter. So audiobooks offer me a chance to use that time wisely.However, I also know that it can be counterproductive to fight technology with technology. The tension of a commute can be exacerbated by more sounds, so sometimes I still need to just have silence.
  3. Widening Exposure 
    I love reading, but it’s sometimes easy to stay within a certain field (like theological studies) and fail to expand beyond it. By opening up a new medium, audiobooks offered me a chance to read about ideas much different from my own (like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and stay up to date on books in the cultural spotlight (Hunger Games).Going forward, I’d like to use my audiobook time to expose myself to even more ideas and authors that I’d not normally get to read.
  4. Stories vs. Ideas
    Oral communication just seems better suited to telling stories than communicating complex ideas.  When I’m running, it takes a lot of mental energy to keep up with an abstract concept whereas staying in a story seems natural. In fact, a good story seems to help me run faster or longer. I’d like to try listening a longer work of non-fiction, but I think I’ll stick with stories, biographies, and heavily narrative content for now.
  5. When/Where to Stop – When I read a book, I usually try to find a good place to stop like a chapter or section marker. But with audiobooks, the amount of listening is defined by the length of the car ride or run. Many times, I’ve found myself parked outside a building so I could finish listening to a chapter. I also find the experience of audiobooks to have a far more powerful emotional effect on me, such that even when I do finish a chapter, it is often not yet finished with me.

P.S. Hearing the Scriptures

This experience has also make me want to get a good audio version of the Bible. As a point of reference, the Hunger Games is about 11 hours, while audio Bibles are 65-75 hours!My own church makes it a point to read the passage from the sermon aloud as we stand, and that choice has made me grow in appreciation for hearing the Word rather than just readingit.If you have any recommendations on a good version, let me know!

If you’re an audiobook lover (or hater), I’d love to hear what you think!

The iPhone Shaped Body: Earthen Vessels

“Always buy the most hideous house in the neighborhood, so at least you won’t have to look at it.” – Unknown

It’s difficult to get a good look at something when you live inside it, and this happens to be especially true of our physical bodies. Matthew Lee Anderson, author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith, says that when he told people he was writing on the body, they often looked at him quizzically as if to say, “The body of what?”

Our bodies touch everything we touch, feel everything we feel, and do everything we do, and yet from our perspective as bodies it’s difficult to know how or why to think about them (or why we should read a book about them!). But whether we are worshipping at church, talking with friends, getting a tattoo, expressing sexuality, or pecking away at our iPhones, we are using our bodies. And yet, the language I just employed – “using our bodies” – seems on second thought to be profoundly wrong. Is the body just another thing we use or is there something more profoundly human about it?

In his book, Matt addresses all the touchy issues related to bodies – worship, tattoos, homosexuality, church online – but he is more fundamentally addressing the deep connection between our bodies and our faith which is often ignored today:

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is a gift for and to human bodies, and as evangelicals, we need to attend carefully to the ways in which the Holy Spirit shapes our flesh. In a world where the body’s status is in question, we have an opportunity to proclaim that the God who saved our souls will also remake our bodies; that the body is nothing less than the place where God dwells on earth. (50)

This is why I think this book is so important and it’s also why I’m happy to write a bit about the fifth chapter entitled, “The Body as Shaped by the World.”

Chapter 5 – The Body As Shaped by the World

In chapter 5 of Earthen Vessels, Matt introduces several physical and cultural forces that shape how we conceive of our bodies.  He begins with the architecture of buildings noting the postures of worship, commerce, or activity we take depending on the structure and beauty of a building.  As he writes, “We shape our worlds, and afterwards our worlds shape us” (86).

Increasingly, however, our conception of the body is shaped less by buildings than by the images of bodies we see on screen and in magazines. Even those of us who try to have a biblically healthy view of the body cannot help but be influenced by the 1000s of images of strikingly beautiful people we see everyday.

Our conception of our bodies is further shaped by modern communication technology which allows us to connect to people in a way that seems to indicate bodily presence is unnecessary or at least unimportant. He writes, “The advantages of the Internet, of course, are incalculable” and yet it is a strange place where, “We are not present online – we present ourselves.” (92-93, Matt also writes powerfully about technology in chapter 11).

The Internet allows us to do all kinds of things that used to require us to move our bodies. We can talk to friends on Skype, order milk and books on Amazon, and send flowers to our mothers all without moving our legs (and soon without moving our fingers!). As amazing as all of this is, over time the net effect is that it seems as if we can live in the world without a body.

And yet as Matt argues, the body is profoundly and deeply connected to being human. The shape our bodies take is the shape our souls will eventually take, and therefore we must be careful to intentionally shape our body in accordance with the gospel rather than passively letting it be shaped by the forces he introduced above.

Intentional Removing Bodies?

To help counteract the negative influences upon our bodies, Matt outlines three ways of life that are helpful in forming and shaping to a gospel-shaped body: freedom, gratitude, and care.

Each of these is worthy of a blog post, but I’d like to focus on one quote in particular that highlights how our attitudes about human bodies are embedded in our worship practices in surprising ways. Under the concept of freedom, Matt writes,

When cleanliness and bodily order become required for entrance into our communities—as they clearly are in most evangelical churches—then we have adopted a standard inhospitable to those whose bodies either might intrude at inopportune times (such as infants and the elderly) or who lack the grooming that an affluent society has transformed into a requirement. Babies crying are not a “distraction” from connecting with God— they are a tangible reminder of our embodied lives and that God himself once cried as a baby, too.

I’d love to share my opinions on this, but I’d be more interesting in hearing what you think? Does removing babies and the elder promote or deny (or both) freedom? Is such action in accordance with a Christian view of bodies and worship or is it tinged with consumerism and perfectionism? And remember, Matt isn’t asking about “babies in church” as if that’s a key issue. He’s using the question to chip away at our everyday practices in order uncover the deeper unquestioned assumptions that guide our lives, churches, and communities.

Note: This post is part of a chapter-by-chapter symposium on Matt’s book Earthen Vessels, hosted by his blog Mere Orthodoxy and covers chapter 5, “The Body As Shaped by the World.” Matt is also available to hold discussions for groups of 7 or more who want to talk with him about the book.

Captivated: A Christian Documentary On Media Saturation

Reader Kevin Sorenson just told me about a new video coming out next month called Captivated: finding freedom in a media captive culture put together by the folks at ReelCast productions and MediaTalk101 both of which are Christian organizations whose goals are to help Christians live in a media saturated culture.

Captivated Trailer

The cast looks to include teens, young adults, and older adults who were at one time addicted to technology, media, and screen time, along with some well-known Christian thinkers like Kerby Anderson (Probe Ministries) and David Murray (Hebrew professor),  writers on technology culture like Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation), and other men and women from groups like the Parents Television Council.

I’m glad to see a high quality presentation of issues in media culture from a Christian view. I must admit though that I’m a little skeptical of the trailer because it presents very strong either/or scenarios where the narrator asks, “Is our social experience richer and deeper…” (images of sad families staring at screens) “… or more shallow and artificial?” (images of happy people grooming horses in great outdoors). But then again movie trailers – as a medium – are designed to pique interest, not offer nuanced views. So I’m hopeful that the finished product will be balanced and helpful to the church. You can order your copy here.

What did you think of the trailer?

Free Streaming Conference with Albert Borgmann

Regent College is hosting a conference with Albert Borgmann today and tomorrow and they are offering a live stream of the event.

Dr. Borgmann will deliver three lectures:

  • Lecture I: Grace and Cyberspace 
    Wednesday, October 19, 7:30 pm
  • Lecture II: Pointless Perfection and Blessed Burdens 
    Thursday, October 20, 11:30 am
  • Lecture III: Matter and Spirit in an Age of Science and Technology 
    Thursday, October 20, 7:30 pm

Find out more:

My Book is Free on Amazon Today!

Today my book, From the Garden to the City, is free on Amazon’s Kindle (UK Store)

Could you do me a favor?

If you have Kindle, are considering getting a Kindle, know someone who has a Kindle, or just have a computer, go ahead and buy it for free so it moves up the ranks. Thanks!

And while you’re at it, go check out the great chapter-by-chapter reviews over at Church Mag.

A Great New Blog and Great New Book

OUTSPOKEN: Conversations on Church Communication

Tim Schraeder of Center for Church Communication asked 60+ authors and creatives (including me) to contribute some thoughts on the importance of communication in the big-C Church as well as in small-c local churches. The chapters are just 500 words which means the authors got to their point quickly and you can read it in short sittings.

The book has turned into a really fun project with a great back story and it’s being officially released at this year’s Story Conference. Go check out the book website and if you’ve read it, let me know what you think.

Tech.Soul.Culture

I’ve also been introduced to a great, new blog called tech.soul.culture: Reflections on Technology, Culture, and Christian Spirituality written by former software developer turned Seattle Pacific University Professor David Sterns.

What I love about Dr. Sterns posts is that he has 20 years of software development under belt as well as a doctorate in science and technology studies (or STS, “science, technology and society”). He’s also a deeply reflective Christian and these elements combine into thoughtful engagement with technology and culture. He written some great thoughts on defining technology, instrumentalism, and culture as well as reviews of books like Alone Together, Here Comes Everybody. He recently wrote a review of my book From the Garden to the City that is kind, but also offers some helpful critiques.

If you’re interested in technology, culture, and Christianity, go subscribe to his blog asap!

Bloggers Needed: Blog through the Book Tour

ChurchM.ag is organizing a blog-through-the-book tour of From the Garden to the City, and they still need a few people to sign up to write on a chapter. If you’ve read the book or would like to join in, please head over to: http://churchm.ag/john-dyer-book-interview/ and contact Eric at eric [at] churchm.ag with the following:

  • Full Name
  • Email
  • Blog URL

Thanks so much!

Help Me Give Away My Book

Yesterday was the official release date of my first book, From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of TechnologyAmazon and others have been shipping it for a few weeks now and a few nice reviews have been popping up.

So now, I’d like to ask for your help in promoting it. The good news is that I’ve setup a pretty easy way to do it over at www.fromthegardentothecity.com (be sure to spin the book around and see the back!)

The first chapter is already there to download, and the next few chapters will be made available when enough people press the tweet, like, and +1 buttons. Each tweet, like, and +1 will move the progress bar a bit further and when it hits 100%, that chapter will be available for free.

As of this morning, the chapters are about 1/3 of the way to being unlocked, and I’d really appreciate it if you’d help us get them to 100% so the chapters will be open to everyone.

Also, watch out for the cool kids over at churchm.ag who will be giving away some signed copies soon.

McLuhan at 100: Three Great Articles on His Vision, Failures, Legacy, and Faith

If Marshall McLuhan were alive today, this would be his 100th birthday. Rather than write another post about him, I’d like to point out three great articles that take a raw look at what McLuhan got right, what he got wrong, how his faith informed all of his thought, and the legacy he left behind.

  • McLuhan at 100 – by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, wrote an article for the Republic that he reworked for his blog. He offers a balanced look at McLuhan’s quick rise, slow fall, and recent resurgence, and he gives as few thoughts about how McLuhan might look at today’s technology like Facebook and the iPhone.
  • Why Bother with Marchall McLuhan? – from Alan Jacobs, author of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, comes a slightly more negative take on McLuhan. Like McLuhan, Jacobs is a literature professor, which leads him to follow some of McLuhan’s literary strands and influences. He takes issue with several of McLuhan’s contradictory statements and ideas, and suggests that his students like Neil Postman and Walter Ong may the best thing he left behind.
  • Divine Inspiration – Jacobs and Carr mention McLuhan’s conversion to Catholicism, but this article spends more time on the subject arguing that it was McLuhan’s faith that made him one of the twentieth century’s most important thinkers.
  • MarshallMcLuhan.com – Also be sure to check out the official Marshall McLuhan website which has links to dozens of articles, reprints of his books, and other goodies to celebrate his 100th birthday.

If you find other good centennial summaries of McLuhan’s life and thought, make sure to leave them in the comments.