In the prolegomena of the Alchemy of Happiness, al-Ghazali introduces a science of the self, of God, of this world, and of the Hereafter. In the section on the gnosis of this world, he writes:
The body needs three things in this world: food, clothing, and shelter. Food is for nourishment, clothing and shelter are for cold and heat, to prevent them from killing him. A person’s needs for his body are no more than these; indeed these are the foundations of the world.
One might expect a science of the world, understood as a large material object, or the set of all material objects, to identify its ‘foundations’ as something like subatomic particles, the laws of physics, or even the atoms and accidents of Asharite kalam
. How, then does Ghazali conceive of the world, such that these bodily needs—food, clothing, and shelter—are to be understood as its foundations? “The world and the Hereafter comprise two states,” Ghazali writes, “that which is prior to death and nearer to you and which is called the world; and that which is after death, called the Hereafter.”
Here, the world is spoken of as a state
rather than a thing or collection of things—a state that the human being is in prior to death, and which is nearer
in relation to that state which is posterior to death. But, being a state rather than a thing, and thus presumably not located in space the way a thing or a place would be, in what sense is the world nearer
? Clearly, the world is nearer in temporal order; at least, we experience being in the world now, and the Hereafter as after
. But there is another, possibly more important, sense of ‘nearness’ at work here. “The purpose of the world,” Ghazali writes, “is the provisioning for the Hereafter.”
This suggests that the world is to be understood as nearer in a teleological order; that is, in the way that means are nearer to one than the ends for which they are used.
The key to the knowledge of Divine Beauty is knowledge of the wonders of Divine handiwork. And the (five) human sensory organs are the first key to the Divine handiwork. These senses would not have been possible, save in this body compounded of water and earth.
Here, the senses are spoken of as a key. The function of a key is to provide selective access. Thus, it has an end beyond itself. It is technological in the Aristotelian sense. The function of the senses is to provide selective access to knowledge of the wonders of Divine handiwork. This knowledge is also spoken of as a key, the function of which is to provide access to knowledge of Divine Beauty. Knowledge of Divine Beauty constitutes human happiness. It is the good in itself. The senses, then, can be understood as technological apparatus, dependent on the body, the purpose of which is to enable the human being “to gather his provisions and obtain the gnosis of God Most High with the key of the knowledge of his own self and the knowledge of all horizons perceptible to the senses.”
To try to capture the full import of this technological conception of the senses, let us consider Ghazali’s metaphor. As we said before, a key has a function. But there is more to it than that; namely that, divorced from its function, it is not a key. That is to say, a key is not primarily an object possessed of such and such physical properties (specific subatomic structure, shape, mass, etc.), which just happens to have this particular function, ‘on the side’ so to speak. The very existence of a key lies in its being for the purpose of providing access, aside from which there is simply no key. For it to exist is for it to play a role, as a means, in an order of means and ends. This is the existential basis of anything technological.
The role of being a means itself is, at bottom, a kind of potential relation between, on the one hand, the ends for which it is the means, and on the other hand, a kind of being which has ends and means, without whom, no order of means and ends is possible. For to say that the purpose of a key is to provide access does not mean that the key exists independently and has its purpose the way a substance has its accident. The purpose is not accidental to the key, but existential. A key is nothing else than a being there for providing access. There is no key without provision of access, and there is no provision of access without 1) one who can have access, for whom access is not already provided, and who can make use of the means for gaining access, and 2) something that is made accessible to that person. In understanding the senses as technology, then, in the way Ghazali has it, we understand the senses to be nothing over and above a potential relation between the human being and knowledge of Divine handiwork. Since this latter is itself a key to knowledge of Divine Beauty, the senses can, in the final analysis, be understood as part of a complex potential relation between the human being and God.
“As long as a person possesses these senses,” writes Ghazali, “and they spy out things for him, he is said to be ‘in the world.’”
As we saw before, the world is a state
that a person is in. Now it is clear that the real nature of that state is possession of the senses. The senses, we saw, are technology in the Aristotelian sense; that is, they have their end beyond themselves, which is to gain access to knowledge of Divine Beauty and thus, ultimate human happiness. Upon reflection, we have discovered that technology is really nothing over and above a potential relation between a human being and his or her end. The senses, then, are a potential relation between the human being and knowledge of Divine Beauty. The world, then, is nothing but a state that a person is in, of standing in a potential knowing (thus also loving) relation with God.
This line of thought, however, beckons toward a discussion of the nature of the world that runs too deep for our present purposes. For these, it is sufficient to arrive at the understanding that the sense in which food, shelter, and clothing are the foundations of the world is that they are necessary means of maintaining that state. We must, of course, add to this the proviso that, by necessary, here we mean necessary in a relative sense, for us, and in virtue of the pattern established by Divine Will, and not necessary in an absolute sense.
While this technological apparatus, possession of which constitutes the world, is entirely a product of God, parts of it are also (in a relative, metaphorical sense, of course) a product of the human being. Yet, Ghazali’s description of even that part related to human effort is structurally analogous to an item of creation with which the human has no part; that is, a tree, with roots, branches, and branches of branches. The roots, again, are the basic bodily needs: food, clothing, and shelter. As for the manner in which these foundations of the world give rise to its branches, Ghazali’s observation is as simple as it is insightful.
Meeting these three needs, he writes, requires the crafts of farming, weaving, and construction. Weaving requires the spinner and tailor. Spinning and tailoring involve tools of wood, iron, leather, and other materials, requiring the craft of blacksmithing, carpentry, and cobblery. These crafts, in their turn, require further specialists, all of whom must work together, giving rise to transactions and, hence, the potential for disputes. This circumstance calls for the arts of politics and rule, adjudication and government, and also religious jurisprudence, “by which the law of mediation among the people may be known.”
In this manner, the vocations of the world multiplied and became interrelated. The people lost themselves among them and did not know that the root of all these was no more than three things: food, clothing, and shelter. All of this became necessary for (satisfying) these three needs, and these three are necessary for the body, and the body is necessary for the heart, to serve as its vehicle. The heart is necessary for God. But they forget themselves and they forget God, like the pilgrim who forgets himself, the Kabah, and (the object of) his journey and spends all his time taking care of his camel!
Another image one might strike is that of gardeners getting lost in the branches of technology, and losing sight of its roots—the basic bodily needs—and its proper fruit: knowledge of the Divine. Prudence in the use of technology can then be likened to the pruning and nourishing of a tree, in accordance with its proper function, such that every branch should be proportional and connected with the root in such a way as to facilitate its bearing fruit. Keeping the root and the fruit in mind, one may be able to distinguish the dead and useless branches from the healthy, so that the former would not be allowed to overcrowd and choke the latter. These dead branches might be imagined as so much dead lumber nailed to the living tree. Or they may be likened to a nasty web of thorny, parasitic vines with no root, fruit, or order, and no end beyond itself other than its own perpetuation, which simply feeds off a healthy tree until it kills its own host, and ultimately, itself.
A basis for a principled distinction between appropriate and inappropriate uses of technology might then turn on asking: does the technology in question facilitate attaining knowledge of the Divine handiwork, the self, and ultimately, of God? Keeping this question in mind can help us maintain our center as we adapt to circumstances of rapid technological acceleration or proliferation (understanding that not all such proliferation constitutes ‘advancement’). An immediate implication of this is that we need not, and should not, operate under the presumption that we need to ‘catch up with the West,’ if this means to simply propagate for ourselves an equally extensive tangle of useless gadgets. Of course, much turns on the use we make of the gadgets we find ourselves surrounded by, and the extent to which we allow them to make use of us. For instance, time is the major commodity we have with which to pursue our proper aim. Thus, we should evaluate whether our ‘time-saving’ devices are really saving or consuming time, and how we are led to use the time that is ostensibly saved.
Returning to the topic with which we began, we may venture to say that, in what we might call Ghazali’s philosophy of technology, there is, interestingly enough, something corresponding to the transhumanist, as well as the anarcho-primitivist perspective. Many, if not all, of the Prophets in history lived, at one time or another, in material conditions as simple and primitive as that of the hunter-gatherer idealized by the anarcho-primitivists. Even so, they were content with the satisfaction of only the most basic bodily necessities. Simultaneously, they attained a state that, in relation to the transhumanists’ comparably impoverished biological conception of humanity, we can fairly describe as transcending the very species. Of course, in relation to the Islamic conception of human nature, the Prophets simply embodied the utmost perfection of what the human being is and is meant to be.
The difference is that this conception of human nature locates the human potential in a determinate conception of human happiness in which technology finds its proper end and in relation to which wisdom with regard to its application is possible. From this vantage point, it is possible to deliberate over the application of technology in a manner more sophisticated than the crude dilemma of being simply ‘for’ or ‘against’ technology, the respective horns of which transhumanists and anarcho-primitivists represent, and which indeed, modernity seems to impose on itself. Nor is it a simple quantitative question of ‘how much’ technology is good. Rather, we are empowered to consider the question qualitatively in terms of what kind and to what end.