Toward a Liturgical Cosmotechnics

There is a fundamental opposition in Western philosophy between several pairs of ideas that relate to technology. In an earlier essay I argued that much of Western thought is defined by these oppositions: techne and episteme (in Plato); natural and artificial beings (in Aristotle); human actor and nature (in Bacon and Descartes). In fact, in the Cartesian rendering, the human is master of, and possesses, nature. Thus, we imagine the human as an entity apart from nature, as the one who can write his or her ethics into the algorithms of our machines.

I pointed out in what I said earlier that the relation of humans and technology is not merely one of a master that manipulates nature with their tools. Just as the use of the hammer allows us to achieve the work we intend, the use of the hammer also makes the arm stronger; and over time, it might even cause the carpenter’s shoulder, a rotator cuff, to tear. All tools have multiple actions, not just those that we intend. The actions reverberate back to us, changing the tool user. Tools even change how we see the world around us. As the old saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

I argued that the same goes for our use of AI. I learned to think because I learned to write. Writing shaped my capacity to reason. Many in the humanities have suggested that we might need to change the way we assess students, because they are using AI to write their papers. But the assessment of students is the least of our problems, and what is at stake is the loss of the development of rational thought. Writing is a technical practice that enables a certain form of reasoning.

Thus, we cannot simply imagine ourselves as masters and possessors of nature through our technics. Our technologies are in part constitutive of the human being. Our way of thinking about technology, in which the human has mastery over technology, is a spiritual problem. In what follows I would like to set out the contours of a different way of thinking about human technicity. In fact, AI is only the latest trend in a certain techno-mytho-religion regnant in Western modernity; it is a religious outlook that Christians ought to find problematic.

The Contemporary Techno-Mytho-Religion

Ernst Cassirer, the early twentieth century neo-Kantian philosopher, argued that, rather than the a priori forms of space and time, we should understand the conditions of possibility for human thought to be immanentized symbolic forms. According to Cassirer, there are five symbolic forms including mythology/religion, art, language, history, and science. These symbolic forms are given by a culture, and each form mediates some aspect of the relationship between the subject who encounters an object and the object that the subject encounters. Every culture has each of these symbolical forms, even those cultures, like ours, that deny they have a mythology. Each symbolic form mediates a different aspect of knowledge. Mythology/religion mediates moral knowledge; art mediates aesthetic knowledge; history mediates knowledge of the past; language mediates many different kinds of knowledge about reality; and science mediates factual knowledge of reality.[1]

According to Cassirer, mythology is the dominant symbolic form for “primitive” cultures. Mythology anthropomorphizes of the powers of the universe. Thus, Poseidon/Neptune is the power of the sea; Hefestus/Vulcan is the power of the volcano and fire. Greco-Roman mythology represented the forces of the world anthropomorphically through myths. Yet, mythology does not have a moral dimension to it, according to Cassirer. The gods of Greece and Rome are fickle. Poseidon can destroy a human walking by the sea for no reason at all. They lack the moral dimension. Mythology anthropomorphizes what is the case. Power just is; it lacks an ought.

Cassirer goes on to say that religion adds the moral “ought” to mythology. The power of Poseidon can destroy the human for no reason, but it ought not be the case. There is value to the person beyond the mere facts. Mytho-religion is the symbolic form that creates the moral code and moral duty, in Cassirer’s philosophy. Mytho-religion mediates our relationships between God and humankind, between and among humankind, and between humankind and the rest of creation. In other words, Cassirer sees the moral dimension as adding the level of duty to the powers of reality, and the duties are spelled out by the law codes. I will say more about religion later.

Cassirer says that in our day, science is the symbolic form that mediates our understanding of the powers of the world, now thought of as electromagnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force. Yet, none of us have sense experiences of these forces. Does gravity have a smell? Can you taste electromagnetism? What color are the nuclear forces? Can you touch them or hear them?

Rather, we perceive the effects of the gravitational forces—for example—on bodies, but we do not perceive gravity itself. We can represent the gravitational force mathematically, but we do not experience gravity itself: Fgrav = (G) M1 x M2/r2, where Fgrav is the gravitational force, G is the gravitational constant, M1 and M2 are the masses of the two objects in relation to one another, and r is the distance between the center masses of the two objects. The symbolic mediation of this mathematic equation is very different from the symbolic mediation of the anthropomorphized representation of Poseidon as the power of the sea.

Modern science—with its mathematical symbolic forms—represents to the human mind what is the case in the world. Just as ancient Greek mythology used anthropomorphized symbolic forms to represent the powers of the world to the Greek mind, we do so now in the abstract symbols of mathematics. Thus, these symbolic forms are devices of representation, tools of representation that habituate one into seeing the forces of nature in a certain culturally appropriate way. Just as Socrates draws the line in the sand to assist Meno in remembering a truth in the world, our cultural symbolic tools refract the features of reality into something that can be understood by culturally instantiated beings like ourselves.

As we have seen, early modern Western philosophy imagined the human as the master and possessor of nature. The idea is that human knowledge of what is the case in the world would give humans power over the forces of nature. We, the human actors, supply the end toward which those forces could be aimed in modern thought.

With the right tools—technologies—humankind can control and manufacture its own worlds. The human can ride herd over the forces of nature, and through human technics, humans can build the New Jerusalem, Bensalem, the great society, or the posthuman future. Throw into the mix David Hume’s assertion, “never an ought from an is” (where humans supply the oughts after the facts are established) and we find a different mytho-religion at work, call it a techno-mytho-religion. The human—the master and possessor of nature—supplies the ought to the is of reality and through human tools builds the ethic into human-made machines aimed at ushering in a new order.[2]

The Sovereignty of Good

By making the human the measure of all things and the master and possessor of nature, we can see the foundation of the various humanisms that have peppered the various European philosophical empires; at least, this is how I would extend the claims made by Iris Murdoch in her book, The Sovereignty of the Good.

Murdoch points to the problems that arose in the mainstream moral theories of her day, problems that I don’t think we have overcome. Murdoch’s three essays, taken together, claim that modern moral philosophy—whether in its analytic, existentialist, or utilitarian forms—turns our attention to superficial publicly accessible acts found on the surface of human behavior (behaviorism and utilitarianism) or finds its source of decision to be a thin, deflated self that wills to act from nothing substantive (existentialism). With their insistence on truth, the various moral philosophical systems lose sight of the good, for the good is too subtle for the crass work of scientific and philosophical analysis. The good, the true, and the beautiful exist in the world, and the moral life is the life that prepares a self to receive its bearings from outside the humanist self.

Put differently, Murdoch notes that the moral life is the life of work and practice; you might say, one has to engage in a moral technics to do and to know the good. We humans are not the tool-bearing, masters and possessors of nature; rather the humans find themselves in a moral universe, upon which they are dependent and to which they have to accommodate themselves so as to not overstep her bounds. The virtues are the tools by which one comes to be able to see the good of the world, the truth of the world, and the beauty of the world. It is through these intellectual and moral techniques that they participate in molding themselves into its likeness.

Yuk Hui comes to a very similar conclusion in his gem of a book, The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics. Hui explores what the various Western approaches to technology have wrought on the world, and how Asian philosophy—especially Chinese philosophy—has appropriated Western science and technology. He also explores the various attempts of Chinese and Japanese philosophers to overcome Western modern and postmodern philosophy (Modern philosophy inevitably morphs into postmodern philosophy).[3]

Without a hint of romanticism, Hui turns to what he claims to be a more ancient rendering of Chinese philosophy that places the human in a world that is already moral, the world that is Dao-Qi. The Dao is the governing principle of the universe, the way or the method by which the cosmos is organized. Yet, Dao is already the moral way of reality. Qi is the vessel, or the tool or device through which Dao is mediated. The Dao-Qi pairing appears in one of the most ancient books of Chinese writing, I Ching, and Hui argues that this fundamental metaphysics in Chinese philosophy is a moral metaphysics (not a metaphysics of morals). Dao—what the world is—is already moral. Qi are the technics through which there is a mediation of the ought-is of Dao.[4] Chinese ritual practice (Li) are the habits that put one in proper disposition to take up with Dao-Qi. Li—the ritual practice—mediates through a technics, the proper disposition of the human actor.

There is some question among Chinese philosophers as to whether Hui’s reading of Daoist philosophy is historically accurate.[5] Yet, Hui nonetheless understands that the Western proclivity to set the human apart from nature is part of the problem; separating the metaphysical from the moral is the problem. The binaries of nature-human, or nature-culture, or is-ought is the fundamental problem at the heart of modern technology, including its appropriation in China, according to Hui.

Cassirer, the neo-Kantian philosopher, comes close to something akin to Hui’s rendering of the Chinese moral metaphysics, but Cassirer’s neo-Kantianism gets in the way. As noted, in Cassirer’s philosophy, the is awaits the human to add the moral duties in a religious idiom. In my estimation, Cassirer’s neo-Kantianism gets in the way of his Judaism. For in the ancient Hebrew mytho-religion the truth of the world is the goodness of the world, no is-ought rupture. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that light was good” (Gen 1:3-4). The duties—the oughts—are not added after the mythology of what is. In the Hebrew cosmogony, the being of creation is inseparable from its goodness. The ancient Hebrew rendering of creation is that it is already good in its coming into being.

The central character in the techno-mytho-religion of the late modern West is the human actor—the master and possessor of nature through technical action. This human actor masters the power of her tools by building into the machines its own morality as if it is just one more mechanical component to be added to the power of the machine.[6] If the modern human is to design its morality into things, we must first understand; and to understand things, there is a central act of ritualized violence, for example in the animal sacrifices of the modern biotechnological laboratory.

We do not see the ritualized action in the modern techno-mytho-religion of Western technics. Yet, millions of animals are manufactured for the medical technoscientific enterprise. In the biotechnological world, these animals are sacrificed in service to some notion of a god-like posthuman creature that is invincible to disease and possibly even death (if we are to accept some transhumanist thinkers and biogerontologists). And lest you think I am being hyperbolic, the term used for the killing of these animals is indeed “sacrifice.”

On the contrary, in the Hebrew creation myth, the human, created in the image and likeness of God (and who is thus “very good”) must have practices and rituals that mediate the moral metaphysics (not the metaphysics of morals). The beings of creation are already good in a moral universe, and the human must position itself in relation to these goods. There is no is-ought distinction in Judaism and, likewise, there is no is-ought distinction in the Christian inheritance of the Hebrew mytho-religion.

Christian Liturgy as the Christian Cosmotechnics

While Cassirer missed the unity of the true and the good—the unity of the good and the true—in the Hebrew creation myth, Murdoch elevates the practice of the virtues as the propaedeutic for encountering the good and truth of being. Murdoch essentially argues that the good is too subtle for the crass work of scientific and philosophical analysis. She turns to the practice of the virtues as the act of positioning oneself rightly in relation to the goodness of beings and Being. Hui, likewise, sees moral metaphysics—rather than the metaphysics of morals—as central to a cosmotechics that is both local and moral.

Hui points to the importance of these technical practices as well. In Confucian philosophy, Li is the ritualized action that cultivates moral sensibility in the one performing the action.[7] Ritualized action is the action that properly situates the actor in relation, not only to other persons, but also to the things with which and upon which the actor acts.[8] Ritualized actions properly dispose the actor to a world of significance, including moral significance.

Ronald L. Grimes says that every ritualized action situates the actor in relation to some power relation. For example, ceremony as a form of ritualized action is the celebration of power. Liturgy, however, is the ritualized action that places the actor in subservience of another power, such that the actor waits on power.[9]

Let’s look at the liturgical action and prayers in the Roman Catholic Mass. In thanksgiving for the gifts, while elevating the gift of bread on the sacred vessel of the paten, the priest says, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” While elevating the gift of wine in the scared vessel of the chalice, the priest says, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received this wine we offer you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.”

The worshipper awaits the power of the Creator. In each instance, there is something from nature, or better something from creation—the wheat and the grapes; something from culture—the work of human hands; and something to be transformed through the work of God, who gave the gifts to begin with. The supplicant calls upon the Creator to act, as she stands by and awaits God’s action.

However, on closer reflection, we find that wheat and grapes are themselves products of hundreds of years of human cultivation—the technological work of human hands. Wheat and grapes come from God. The traditions of wheat and grape cultivation are gifts from ancestors, combining with the gifts from God. The work of human hands to make them into bread and wine are gifts given by others. They will, through the action of the Holy One, become deeper gifts, the food and drink of spiritual life. From gift to gift to gift; from the goodness of the Other to goodness of God’s creation to goodness of human culture and cultivation.

We are now at the point where we can ask the important question of human technics: do our technics and habits reveal the relationship of the human to creation’s moral metaphysics? Do our habits and practices reveal the place of the human in relation to the whole of creation? Do our habits and practices reveal the human as a part of creation, and as a subordinate actor? Unlike the techno-mytho-religion of modern Western cultures, where the human is imagined as the technological master and possessor of nature, the Christian liturgy reveals the human to be one creature among others, a sub-creator rather than a co-creator.

The human, then, is the creature that by its very nature, requires the mediation of technics for it to properly be what it is. The human is the being that by its nature is cultured. As thinkers like Bernard Stiegler and Yuk Hui have shown us, our technics—tools, techniques, devices—are just materialized features of the ideas that animate cultures and shape the way we take up with reality. It is no wonder then that our word, culture, is etymologically related to the Latin word for worship, cultus.

[1] Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961.

[2] In another publication, I have called the techno-mytho-religion, Transhumanism’s WEIRD Religion. See Jeffrey P. Bishop, “Transhumanism’s WEIRD Religion: On the Ontotheological Morality of the Posthuman,” Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences 2023; 10(2): 175-198. Doi:

[3] Yuk Hui, The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics, Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic, 2022.

[4] Hui, op.cit, 65-69.

[5] See the presentation of Klara Sofija Sanja, “The Relationship between dao and qi in the Yi Jing: Chinese Cosmotechnology,” Presented at the Conference on Yi Jing in Reykajvik, January 4, 2023. Accessed 3/1.2024.

[6] See Peter Paul Verbeek, Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things,

[7] Hui, op. cit., 108-110.

[8] See Ronald Grimes, Beginnings in Ritual Studies, Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982, 34-37.

[9] Grimes, op. cit., p. 42-44.

Featured Image: James Tissot, God Creating the World, 1902; Source: The Morgan Library and Museum, PD-Old-100. 


Jeffrey P. Bishop

Jeffrey P. Bishop is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University and holds the Tenet Endowed Chair in Health Care Ethics  He is the author of The Anticipatory Corpse and is the co-author of the Expanded Reason Award winning Biopolitics After Neuroscience.

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