29 Jul

Not in tune with the world

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 07/29/21

Michael Hanby on how the “technological paradigm” flattens our thinking

With a title taken from one of Saint Francis of Assisi’s canticles, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’ was issued in 2015. While many commentators focused on the ecological policies the document endorsed (or seemed to), very little was said about the philosophical and theological foundations of the document. 

In an article titled “The Gospel of Creation and the Technocratic Paradigm,” published in the Winter 2015 issue of Communio, Michael Hanby examined some of the more theoretical issues raised by the encyclical. As Hanby notes, Pope Francis identifies a “technocratic paradigm” present in modern thought which defines “the place of human beings and of human action in the world.” The fundamental problem, according to Pope Francis, “is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.”

Hanby argues that this technocratic mentality influences how we strive to know Creation before we launch any projects of manipulation. “This new technological manner of knowing is a knowing-by-doing that ‘takes experience apart and analyzes it,’ in Francis Bacon’s words. That is, it destroys in thought and experiment the unity of experience and the intelligible wholes that comprise it in order to reduce these objects to their simplest components and reconstruct them as the sum of those abstract components and their interactions. This is the meaning of that famous Baconian phrase, ‘knowledge is power.’ It’s not simply that we now know nature for the sake of control; it is rather that we know by means of the various kinds of control we are able to exercise over the phenomena of nature, and the truth of our knowledge is measured by the success of our experiments in predicting, retro-dicting, or manipulating these phenomena.”

Hanby makes it clear that “this control is often undertaken with the best of intent and for noble ends — indeed Bacon himself advances his new science in the name of charity. The imperative to control is not principally a matter of subjective will or intention; rather it is inherent in the structure of scientific cognition and experimental rationality.”

Hanby observes that the technocratic paradigm affects how we regard human nature and the most intimate aspects of human experience. “The so-called sexual revolution, for instance, is most fundamentally the technological revolution turned on ourselves, not only in the deep sense that the canonical dualism of sex and gender presupposes a more basic dualism between the affective part, usually thought to be the locus of personal identity, and a meaningless material body regarded as a kind of artifact, but also in the more mundane sense that the technical conquest of human biology is its practical condition of possibility. Just as ‘same-sex marriage’ would have remained permanently unimaginable were it not for the technological conquest of procreation, so too would it have never been possible to think that a man might ‘really’ be a woman if we did not think it were technologically possible to transform him into one. And yet these technologically generated exceptions have occasioned a radical rethinking of the whole of human nature, sexuality, and embodiment. . . .

“A culture whose very view of reality is technological, with all the assaults on human dignity that inevitably follow, will have every incentive not to think about the profound questions of human existence that for so long animated Western culture. Education will largely consist in learning not to ask them, and so will be scarcely distinguishable from ignorance. But more worrisome still, the inhabitants of such a culture will be unable to think deeply about such questions, because there will be no depths to think about; for they will have already reduced reality to an assemblage of superficial ‘facts’ and thinking to the arrangement and manipulation of those facts. For such a society there would simply be no such thing as a profound question, only problems awaiting technical or managerial solutions. A society whose members are thus unable to think cannot ultimately be a free society, because they can never see beyond and thus transcend the fate which their powers have unleashed. Their only consolation, and this is also their curse, is that they might never know the difference.”

A pdf of Michael Hanby’s article is available here.