14 Aug

Technology's Deeper Resonances

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/14/05

The newest issue of The New Atlantis (Summer 2005; available on-line here) provides further evidence that it is the most instructive and insightful publication examining the many facets of the relationship between technology and culture. Christine Rosen (a guest on MARS HILL AUDIO Journal volume 70) continues her series of reflections on how some of the most private and personal technologies (iPods, TiVo, cosmetic surgery) shape our consciousness and our sense of personal identity and of the shape and texture of relationships. In "Video Games: Playgrounds of the Self," Rosen shows why explicit sex and graphic violence are only the more superficial problems facing heavy game players.

Eric Cohen, the editor of The New Atlantis and Director of the Project on Bioethics and American Democracy at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, also focuses on the inner effects of living in a technological society. In "The Real Meaning of Genetics," Cohen argues that the real challenge posed by radical programs of genetic engineering are not in the potentially monstrous products created by new techniques, but in new attitudes toward life, death, children, and love. In his concluding paragraphs, he reminds us that "too often, we easily assume that the progress of science is identical to the progress of man. The truth, as always, is much more complicated. Many men and women of the past were superior in virtue to us now, and many scientific discoveries of the present and future will prove a mixed blessing, and sometimes even a curse."

Two theologians, David Bentley Hart (featured on volume 67 of the Journal) and Robert W. Jenson (a guest back on volume 20) contribute essays assessing the importance of John Paul II's Theology of the Body for bioethics and for cultural and social wisdom more generally. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, contrasts the elevated view of the human in John Paul II's work and in Christian thought more generally with the view that dominates in various "transhumanist" and eugenist circles. This latter view appears at first glance to present human beings in a more Promethean, grander guise, since there is a lot of talk about acquiring more and more power over nature and human nature and "becoming as gods." Yet Hart (in "The Anti-Theology of the Body") maintains that there is a pathetic paradox in this hubris: "The materialist who wishes to see modern humanity's Baconian mastery over cosmic nature expanded to encompass human nature as well—granting us absolute power over the flesh and what is born from it, banishing all fortuity and uncertainty from the future of the race—is someone who seeks to reach the divine by ceasing to be human, by surpassing the human, by destroying the human. It is a desire both fantastic and depraved: a diseased titanism, the dream of an infinite passage through monstrosity, a perpetual and ruthless sacrifice of every present good to the featureless, abysmal, and insatiable god who is to come."

In "Reading the Body," Robert W. Jenson insists that one of the effects of John Paul II's Theology of the Body is simply to re-focus attention in medical ethics to the human body. So Jenson writes: "I propose that most questions conventionally bundled together as 'bioethica,' together with some medical-ethical questions at the boundary, can be cast in the form: Should/may we do (x) with/to bodies that are human? Interpreting bioethical problems as problems about bodies . . . does assume that some entities—such as embryos or even cells—may be regarded as bodies that are human without necessarily insisting that they have the status of human persons." Jenson continues discussing a number of other bioethical maxims suggested by John Paul II's remarkable reminder of the biblical teaching of the meaning of the human as centered in the body.

If this isn't enough to encourage you to read the current issue of The New Atlantis, there are also reflections about Paris Hilton and the end of the Star Trek franchise. We stoop to conquer. [Posted August 2005, KAM]