The origin question

The second question in Apostel’s conceptualization of worldviews is that regarding the origin of things. Where do things come from? In the Dooyeweerdian approach, this has been conceptualized in the foundational function of objects. This function tells us what caused objects to become. For this function there are different aspects available. Stones in the river have their origin in physical processes of erosion. Their foundational function is in the physical aspect. Trees in the wood have their foundational function in the biotic aspect as it is life processes that made them to what they are now. Technical artifacts came about by processes of human development and so they have their foundational function in the formative aspect. This way we can conceptually distinguish between raw materials and half-products. Raw materials have their foundational function in the physical or biotic aspect, while final products and half-products have it in the formative aspect.

Does it make a difference in which aspect the foundational function is? In a pure materialist worldview, it does not because natural and human causes are not fundamentally different as humans are nothingbut a complex system of material elements. In a nonmaterialist worldview, there is a difference in that humans have a nonmaterial mind. That mind does not feature in physical and biological processes, but it does in technological and other cultural processes.

Are there any consequences to this difference in worldviews? A possible consequence is a different perspective on the possibility of computer- and robot-created products. If creativity is a phenomenon that has its origin in material processes in the brain, then it is possible that we develop Artificial Intelligence that in the long run will be able to display the same level of creativity as humans do. Already now there is computer-produced artwork. There is controversy about the issue of artistic value of these products. If they are not the creation of a human mind, but a machine’s product, can they really be said to have cultural value? Or is the cultural value rather in the designing and programming of the computer that brought forth the artwork? Computers can support the design of products, but can they fully take over design work? Even if it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between a human- and a machine-designed artifact, does that mean that they really are the same? For now, it seems that artificial intelligence does not have the level of originality that humans can reach. Those who have a worldview in which humans have a nonmaterial mind will claim that it can even be misleading to deny the difference between humans and machines in product development. Machines are excellent information processors, but they lack a mind as humans have it. In their view, a cooperation between humans and machines can get the best out of both and thus create an optimal condition for successful product development.

The purpose question

This question about the future can be translated to the quest for purpose in the context of product development. What is the product for?

Dooyeweerd developed the notion of the qualifying function for answering this question. This function indicates what the object is ultimately for. A bridge is there to connect two shores, but that is not its ultimate aim. This connecting function, which features in the spatial aspect, can be called its ‘technical’ or ‘operational’ function. Bridges can have different qualifying functions. The famous Chain Bridge in Budapest caused two separate villages, Buda and Pest, to become one city. This bridge has its qualifying function in the social aspect: two communities became connected. The small bridges in the Haar-lemmermeer (one of the many polders in the Netherlands) designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava hardly play any role in traffic but are a sort of sculpture in the landscape. They have their qualifying function in the aesthetic aspect rather than the social. And the bridge leading from the mainland to the Church Island in Wales only served to allow churchgoers to reach the church and thus had its qualifying function in the belief aspect (religion is an ultimate form of belief). So different bridges can have their qualifying function in different aspects of reality, and in principle that holds true for every object.

The value and moral question

Morality is part of any worldview. So are other forms of values, such as aesthetic and economic values and values of justice. Different worldviews have different perspectives on the relation between these values and reality. Some worldviews claim values are intrinsic in reality. In ethics, moral realism is an example of that view. Others claim that values are merely a matter of ascription. Something is not intrinsically good or bad, but we can ascribe moral goodness or wickedness to it. There are good arguments for both perspectives. It is clear that in many cases, different people have different ideas about the moral, aesthetic, economic or justice value of a product. This seems to point in the direction of values as being ascribed, not inherent. At the same time, we can see that some products seem to give rise to much uniformity in the appreciation of that product. A Rembrandt painting is seen as beautiful by people through the ages. Killing humans simply for pleasure is seen as immoral throughout the ages and in all cultures (even the cannibals have morality in their killing of humans).

When it comes to moral values, it is also common for all peoples and times that it is acknowledged that evil exists and that people can have evil intentions. Strikingly this is often overlooked in product development. Designers tend to focus on the benevolent users only, namely those that will use their product according to their (good) intention. The screwdriver is designed and made for people who want to drive screws with it, not to kill someone else with it. Yet, we know that the possibility exists that in all our good intentions to drive screws with it, we can suddenly be overcome by anger and rage while someone is standing in front of us and in reach of our screwdriver tip. Designers increasingly become aware that not only proper but also accidental and even immoral use of their product is a necessary consideration in product development. Since 9/11, we know that airplanes can be used for other purposes than for bringing people from A to B. Designers feel the responsibility at least to reflect on the possibility of preventing immoral use of a product (as far as this is possible) or design the product in such a way that the impact of immoral use is limited.

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