Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On Techniques

An essential characteristic of man is that he acts. Action is purposeful behavior, that is the behavior of rationally utilizing means for an ends. We call means that have material embodiment “technology.” We call means that do not have material embodiment “techniques”. Mankind has always been a rational animal, therefore he has always used technology and/or techniques.

When a bee constructs a beehive, the method of construction is not a technique. Nor is the beehive itself technology. This is because the bee itself does not “act”, strictly speaking. It exhibits behavior, but the “purpose” in the behavior is that of its genes, and not of its mind. Only mental purpose (rationality) makes a behavior an action. Most animal behavior is irrational.

Much human behavior is irrational too. When a human unthinkingly blinks, he does not “act”. The behavior has purpose (to clear out particles), but the purpose is that of his genes, not of his mind. Moderns tend to call what we consider ill-decided action “irrational”. For example, we often would call rain dances irrational. This is not so. Rain dances (as strange as it is to say) are rational. They are behavior with mental purpose. The rain dancer is utilizing means (the dance) for an end (rain). Of course it erroneous rationality, but it is rationality nonetheless.

Rational animals are always choosing between means to their various ends: “Do I fight, or do I run?”. The means of fighting and and the means of running are themselves mostly instinctual. But the choice between the two is rational. Rational animals are often choosing between means/techniques which they already know. But some rational animals can also invent new means/techniques.

For example, chimpanzees are known to strip branches of their leaves, and lower them into logs to harvest termites. They do not instinctively know how to do this. Therefore, some chimpanzee long ago must have figured it out, and other chimpanzees learned from observing him. That means the behavior is mentally purposive, and the stripping of the leaves qualifies as technique, and the stripped stick itself qualifies as technology.

While the non-rational behavior of instinct is passed on through heredity, technique is passed on through learning. Though it may dismay educationalists to hear this, learning doesn’t necessitate teaching. It only necessitates observation and reason. The learning chimpanzee sees(observation) the inventive chimpanzee utilize his new technique, and through his rationality becomes aware that the new technique could be a means to his end of eating termites.

Thus throughout the history of rationality in animals, technique was passed from one individual to another, and from one generation to the next, solely through observation until the development of spoken language. Spoken language enables the human animal to express his own ratiocinations to other humans using only sounds. This widened the range of techniques which could be passed on. Through speech, humans could pass on techniques such as “how to get a wife”, which they couldn’t pass on through observation. Through speech, techniques could be passed across great distances, especially in the memorable form of song (as in the agricultural poetry of Hesiod).

The development of the written language widened the possibilities yet further for the propagation of techniques. It made the verbal transmission of techniques more exact and less prone to loss. Writing also enabled people to invent techniques which required the use of arithmetic and geometry. In ancient Phoenicia, merchants used written arithmetic to improve their business practices. In ancient Mesopotamia, priest-bureaucrats used written algebra to improve their grain management techniques. And in ancient Egypt, priest-bureaucrats used written geometry to improve their land-surveying techniques.

Technique is a sub-class of means, and it is also a sub-class of knowledge. All new knowledge is attained in one of the following ways:

  1. Instinct: Instinctive knowledge is knowledge that arises within the mind without any observation or ratiocination.
  2. Authority: Belief in accounts told by other humans
  3. Observation or Empirical Knowledge: Belief in sensory impressions
  4. Induction: Finding patterns in facts and anticipating that that pattern will continue
  5. Deduction: Finding necessary implications of certain facts

Techniques, by definition, are not instinctive (see above). Techniques also cannot be considered solely observational knowledge. Thinking, “That chimpanzee is getting termites with that stick” is observational knowledge. But thinking, “Perhaps I could get termites with a similar stick as well” is induction. Thinking, “When I planted seed this time last year I got a huge harvest” is observational knowledge. Thinking, “Perhaps if I do so again, I will get another big harvest” is induction.


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