Technology and Tikkun

In Silicon Valley, there is a sense that tech companies are doing God’s work. Software can solve the world’s biggest problems, many tech entrepreneurs believe, if only it is put to the right use.

via Can Technology Save the World? Experts Disagree – The New York Times.

My first reaction to this quote was “G-d’s work? Really? No arrogance or irony?”

And then I thought about my friends who work in the Valley, and realized that something else is happening. Amid all of the wealth, ambition, and engineering is a deep-seated need among many (but by no means all) in the Valley to find a higher meaning in what they are doing.

Is life aught more than the next line of code, the next reference design, the next product launch? Or is there, should there, be something more to what we are doing?

It is relatively easy for the great engineer-entrepreneur-philanthropists of technology to find a path to meaning: Bill and Melinda Gates, Irwin and Joan Jacobs, Marc Benioff and Lynn Krilich and others like them have placed their fortunes at the service of the greater good. But how does a system engineer or mid-level manager in a high-growth, high-pressure tech enterprise inject meaning into their lives?

Fact: there are apparently no synagogues within a decent walking or driving distance for anyone working in Mountain view, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Milpitas, and huge chunks of San Jose and Cupertino. And the problem is not that there are no Jews in those communities.

Food for Hebraic thought…

Anti-Semitism and Free Speech

Let’s be realistic: anti-Semitism is already being discussed on campus behind the thinning veil of”anti-Zionism.” It is time for us to flush the haters into the open, compel them to drop their pretense, and say what they really mean. Frankly, I’d rather be able to see my enemy in the clear than have him camouflaged behind the fig leaf of BDS or “Palestinian” nationalism.

If we are going to allow anti-Semitism (whether open or under the rubric of anti-Zionism) to enter the legitimate realm of campus discussion, we must also allow open and free criticism of Islam, Christianity, the Queen, radical feminism, and every other sacred cow on campus.

And while we are doing so, let us recommit ourself to free speech. Let’s stop protecting each other from hurt feelings and grow some thick skin. The existence of the university as something distinct from the fifth through eighth years of high school is the need to expose young adults to all kinds of ideas so that they can improve their critical reasoning. Otherwise college becomes like the Internet: four years of your life spent with a bunch of like-minded people.

Recognizing the Limits of Reason

Brooks may overpraise British Enlightenment thinkers—who include Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism and a thoroughgoing rationalist—but he is right in noting that the Enlightenment has not entirely neglected the limits of reason. Regarded by many as the supreme Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant was quite explicit in stating that there are questions that human reason cannot answer. One could go back further and note that Aristotle—commonly regarded as one of the greatest Western rationalists—insisted that virtuous conduct was a matter of habit and character just as much as rational deliberation.

John Gray
“Review: Mr. Brooks’ Miracle Elixir”
The National Interest

Prodded perhaps by its headlong rush to liquidate religion, modern science conveniently forgets that there are limits to the powers of reason and observation. That this truth is espoused by two of the Enlightenment’s shining stars can come as no comfort.

Whether Kant and Aristotle genuinely apprehended the possibility that there was in fact something higher than rationality, logic, and observation is hard to say. But they had the humility, imagination, and intellectual honesty to acknowledge that there were walls beyond which we cannot peer with the tools available to our limited intellects.

Rules and Virtue

Unlike Kant, the emblematic modern who claimed that the rightness of our deeds is determined solely by reason, unsullied by need, desire or interest, Aristotle rooted his ethics in human nature, in the habits and practices, the dispositions and tendencies, that make us happy and enable our flourishing. And where Kant believed that morality consists of austere rules, imposing unconditional duties upon us and requiring our most strenuous sacrifice, Aristotle located the ethical life in the virtues. These are qualities or states, somewhere between reason and emotion but combining elements of both, that carry and convey us, by the gentlest and subtlest of means, to the outer hills of good conduct. Once there, we are inspired and equipped to scale these lower heights, whence we move onto the higher reaches. A person who acts virtuously develops a nature that wants and is able to act virtuously and that finds happiness in virtue. That coincidence of thought and feeling, reason and desire, is achieved over a lifetime of virtuous deeds. Virtue, in other words, is less a codex of rules, which must be observed in the face of the self’s most violent opposition, than it is the food and fiber, the grease and gasoline, of a properly functioning soul.

via Garbage and Gravitas | The Nation.

This is a fascinating discussion, and I have quoted this article elsewhere. Accepting the author’s précis of Kant and Aristotle at face value, one must ask a question: how do we get to that virtuous behavior unless we have a guide to what that behavior is? And how do we practice that behavior consistently without a codex of rules?

Man is neither automatically virtuous nor automatically vicious. Both instincts are inexorably intertwined. The pathway to the better angels of our nature is not the only logical path, nor is it the easiest. We need more than the beauty of the mountains of virtue to attract us to climb their heights.