Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Norris Clarke S.J. #3

Technology and Man: A Christian Vision
Author(s): W. Norris Clarke, S. J.
Source: Technology and Culture, Vol. 3, No. 4, Proceedings of the Encyclopaedia Britannica
Conference on the Technological Order (Autumn, 1962), pp. 422-442

Just a word to the reader - please stick with it to the end. The journey I promise is worthwhile.


.... I shall now set myself to sketching the broad outlines of the view of technology identified above. The clearest way of doing this would undoubtedly be to move down from above, that is, from God and His plan for man and the universe down to technology as an element in this plan. But in fact I am going to follow the opposite path, that is, to advance in a series of ascending spirals beginning from what is closer to us, from what is more immediately determinable and more widely agreed upon about the relation of technology to man, then rising to the analysis of man as a hierarchy of spirit over matter, next to the theistic vision of the origin and meaning of human life, and finally up to the full Christian vision of man's present and ultimate destiny, a vision accessible only to those who believe in the Christian Revelation given by God to His Church. The purpose of following this ascending path is that, in an audience like this, including as it does persons of all shades of religion or lack of it, I may be able to keep as many of you with me on the ascent for as long a time as your own principles can stand it.

…. It is that technology, being a partial activity of man, can be properly evaluated only if it is set in the context of the total reality and good of man and not judged as a self-sufficient whole exclusively in terms of its own inner laws and dynamism. The same is true of any partial human activity, such as, for example, athletics, or recreation, or business, etc. Thus it would be a dangerous distortion of perspective to say that whatever is good for the advance of athletics is good for man, just as it would be to say that whatever is good for General Motors is good for the country.

(*) Hence a first essential principle for the wise use of technology in any culture is the conviction that it cannot (without profoundly disruptive effects) be made an end in itself, allowed to develop and be applied, throttle wide open, with no other guiding principle than the unfolding of its own intrinsic potentialities at the fastest possible tempo. This conviction must be firmly held and acted on by the leaders of our society, from the gov-ernment down, and impressed by appropriate control from above, if necessary, on the decision-makers within technology itself, if they are not able or willing to see its necessity under their own initiative. As a matter of fact, many of the latter already do see it quite as clearly as anyone else. This vision may not always be equally shared, however, on the lower echelons of technological planning and execution.
Response. First, I wholeheartedly agree that technology is one among many activities of humankind and thinking it different is a mistake.

Second, Clarke here makes an interesting logical mis-step and one that is common to those outside the study of technology. Just as it would be impossible to control human activities in recreation or athletics then it is equally impossible to control technology. We can curb it we hopefully create incentives to push it in the right direction but control - NO! Look how difficult it is to police doping - we think it is a bad thing but stopping it .... Even now some suggest two tiered Olympics one where literally anything goes and the other a clean Olympics. Would that be a good thing? There are no planners of technology and it is impossible to understand the ripple effects of a single technology on society … and the more complex the interacting systems the more impossible planning becomes. Just think how hard it would have been for Apple to imagine Uber when they were creating the smartphone. The point is technology is an ecosystem - where a new plant or animal is introduced into a particular system there is little knowing what the repercussions will be because the interdependencies are so varied and complex - so with technology. Good directions ultimately come from the moral health of the population.

(*) According to this analysis of man, the fundamental role of the whole material universe is to serve as a theater and instrument for the gradual evolution of man, both individual and race, to full self-consciousness, self-mastery, self-development, and self-expression of his free, conscious spirit in and through matter. Accordingly, the role of technology is twofold. Its first aim is liberation of man from servitude to matter. That is to say, its role is to free man's energies more and more from their primitive state of almost total absorption in sheer brute physical labor as an essential condition for physical survival. By inventing more and more effective techniques for getting nature to work for him instead of against him, man frees himself progressively from absorption in fulfilling his elementary animal needs, in fact from exhausting physical labor in achieving any of his goals, lower or higher. The energy thus liberated can be diverted upwards into his various higher and more characteristically human levels of activity, i. e., more and more penetrated by spirit. The fundamental principle of technology at work here is that in proportion as any activity of man depends more predominantly on sheer physical effort, especially of a routine repeti-tive kind, so much the more apt is it to be handled by machines, releasing the person himself for other activities requiring skills of a more intellectual and creative order. Thus technology is an indispensable instrument in man's progressive self-realization of his nature and dignity as a man, that is, as superior to all the lower levels of non-rational material beings. The second function of technology looks in the opposite direction from the first. The first was to liberate or elevate man above servitude to matter. The second looks back again toward matter. It becomes the instrument whereby the liberated spirit of man can turn again toward the material world and dominate it in a new active way, making it a medium for the spirit's creative self-expression and self-realization.

Response. The language is too strong for my 21st century ear – knowing how far we have over stretched our little planet. I certainly react negatively to the language here, but I also feel there is something deeper that my reaction to the superficial and indeed maybe Clarke's own being of his time failed him in conveying what may be deeper in his mind. There is something deep here that appeals to me and something almost contradictory in Clarke. As I have struggled with my own understanding of the role of technology in a Christian context the thing that stands out most starkly to me is how early in the human record we collectively starting making tools. Language and stone axes date back a long way. It has been my own discovery of Clarke that has given me a language for this The created human being in a material universe – this above all else points to the nature of technology making under God. We inhabit physicality not by accident but by design. God designed it this way and the manipulation of material matter and it is almost unimaginable that under these conditions we would not have manipulated matter and thereby introduced technologies. Maybe he is too quick and too directional in his vision of humankind but I feel an elemental truth that humans are learning creativeness from the master creator in a physical universe.

The contradiction - Clarke here reads a little too neo-platonic for me. At present my imagination does not stretch in the direction of Clarke towards domination in the terms that our ears may hear that term – but being physical creatures we may learn to shape and be shaped by physicality under the spirit.

Even though this is taken from the first loop of his spiral I would suggest humankind has got itself into way too much trouble aready thinking itself LORD of the plant - something a little humbler I suggest is needed.

(*)In the traditional spiritualist vision of man, at least in the West, the tendency was all too frequently to look on matter primarily as the negation, the opposite of spirit, weighing it down, imprisoning it. The most effective remedy was to turn away from matter towards a world of pure uncontaminated spirit. Now matter appears rather as a kind of complement or correlative to spirit, not radically opposed to it and closed to it, but mysteriously open and apt, if properly handled, to receive the impression of spirit and to serve as medium for the spirit's own self-expression and self-development. The Thomistic doctrine of the natural union of soul and body, not as a punishment but for the good of the soul, and of the soul as the natural "form" or informing principle of the body, here takes on a depth and richness of meaning which might have startled, as it would also have delighted, I am sure, even St. Thomas Aquinas himself. For now the whole material universe becomes, as it were, an extension of man's own body, and thus becomes informed by his soul in an indirect and instrumental way. The fundamental moral principle relevant here is that man's new-found power over matter should be used according to the proper order of values, that is, for the expression and fulfillment of his higher and more spiritual capacities, and not merely for his greater material and sensual self-indulgence and catering to the body.
Response. This vision of the unification of ‘soul’ and ‘material’ seems completely obvious – just as McGilchrist in the “Master and its Emissary” points to the human’s brain’s division, specialisation and essential unity. The words slip through the fingers like sand  - a little illusively but much to ponder.

(*)Let us now mount one rung higher in our ascending spiral. The previous level established the order of subordination between matter and spirit and therefore oriented the aim of technology upwards as an instrument for the life of spirit. But it left undetermined just what was the deeper significance and ultimate goal of man's self-development through the mighty power of technology which he has now made his servant. Here the theistic vision of man and the universe opens up new horizons. Man's own origin and destiny now emerge not as a mere accident of landing on top of the heap of the world of matter by some lucky turn of the blind wheel of chance. They are the result rather of God's own creative activity, first bringing into being the material universe as a matrix and instrument for the development of the spirit of man, and then infusing each human soul into this evolving system at its appropriate in time and place. The fundamental perspective here is of man created, as the Book of Genesis puts it, " to the image and likeness of God," with a divinely given destiny to unfold and develop this image to the fullest possible extent in this life, in order to be united in eternal beatific union with Him in the next. Man's self-development and self-expression through matter, with technology as his instrument, now appear not just as the satisfaction of some egotistic drive for power and self-affirmation, but as the fulfilling of a much higher and more sacred vocation, the God-given vocation to authentic self-realization as the image of God his Creator.

Response. This is an enormous vision and one that I feel is in large part compelling. Any queasiness over language can be tempered if we were to replace the term ‘for’ with a term such as 'with'. I am not one of those that sees the Cosmos as purely created for us in some sense although that may be the case but I see it as co-entities created for themselves and each other. We were to cultivate and guard the garden – presumably from ourselves over using and destroying – overconfidence in that it is for us. Clarke writes just a couple of sentences on …. It is rather both a loving gift and a sacred trust to be used well as its Giver intended, with a sense of responsibility and stewardship to be accounted for…

(*) Let us advance now to the last and (to a Christian, at least) highest rung of our ascending spiral, the specifically Christian perspective. This adds on, first, the notion of a primordial sinfulness of the human race, or Fall of man, and secondly, redemption from this state of alienation from God by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, become man. The first of these two factors is the state of sinfulness of man stemming from a primordial aberration of the race from God, called Original Sin, and compounded further by the individual sinfulness of each human being down the ages. As a result there is a fundamental duality or ambivalence in man's will. Instead of being drawn spon-taneously toward God and his authentic good in a properly ordered manner, man tends also spontaneously toward self-centered egotism, sensuality, self-indulgence, lust for power, wealth, pride, and self-aggrandizement. In fact, unless enlightened and strengthened by divine grace, man tends more immediately and spontaneously to satisfy his lower, more material, and more selfish desires than his higher, more spiritual, and more altruistic or self-transcending desires. Thus technology must now be set in the framework of a radical ambivalence in man toward both good and evil at once, with the re-sulting very real possibility of grave misuse of this powerful instru-ment, itself morally neutral and capable of being put to either good or evil use. The danger is especially great in the case of technology, since by its fundamental orientation toward matter it puts in man's hands the power to gratify almost without limit his material and sen-sual appetites, if he wishes to turn technology primarily toward these ends. There is also the fact that technology has a peculiar power to absorb the attention of those engaged in it, by virtue of its exciting challenge and spectacularly visible results, whereas the fruits of the spiritual activities of man are less immediate, tangible, and easy to assess. Hence the alert Christian, alive to the full implications of the Christian vision of man, will look on technology with a restrained and carefully qualified optimism, seeing it as at once a great potential good for man by nature and yet in the hands of fallen and selfish human nature an almost equally potent instrument for evil. He will have none of the naive starry-eyed optimism of those who believe that man if left to himself is really a sweet, innocent, woolly white little creature who will be good as gold except for an occasional rare excursion into naughtiness, or of the a priori optimism of those who believe in the religion of automatic constant forward progress, that things are necessarily getting better and better all the time and that any progress in any field at any time is automatically good and for the benefit of man. The second element in the Christian vision is the redemption through the Son of God made man.

Response. This is carefully crafted and nuanced bit of writing that has lost none of its clarity and relevance over the years. The currently starry eyed optimists in silicon valley will do some good and some harm but their optimism is ill founded. Redemption and salvation is only found in one place

(*). One is the intrinsic goodness and dignity of matter itself, which has been sanctified and elevated by the descent into it of God Himself and His assumption of it into personal union with Himself by means of a human body formed from the basic stuff of the material universe just like any other man's. Here we see the God-man Himself using matter as an efficacious instrument or medium both for expressing His own divinity to man in a privileged, we might say, guaranteed, human image, and also for channeling the salvific effects of His divine grace to men through the seven sacraments, each a synthesis of a visible material sign informed by an efficacious spiritual power. In other words, the Incarnation and Redemption through the God-man gives Christians the perfect archetype and model of the openness of matter to spirit we spoke of earlier and its intrinsic apt-ness to serve as the medium of the spirit's self-expression and creative power. This is, as it were, a confirmation from above, by God's own example, of what man could already have discovered, at least in theory, by reflection on his own nature and the experience of working with matter, even though historically the lesson had not yet at that time become clear to him. Thus the labor of the young Jesus as a carpenter in Nazareth already lends in principle a divine sanction to the whole technological activity of man through history. And the doctrine of the ultimate resurrection of all human bodies in a new, more " spiritual-ized " mode of existence, i. e., totally open and docile to the workings of spirit within it, delivers a final coup de grace to the "angelism " of the Platonic and Manichean traditions by presaging the final " deliverance from bondage "

Response. This is such beautiful writing to me. ‘Matter working’ in an openness to God. AI developers take note the essence of humanity is bound up intrinsically in some fascinating way in our physicality and boundedness. Brain downloading and other notions it seems to me are just modern neo-platonic thought and mistake the essence of humanity.

So for me, any uncomfortableness with how Clarke expresses himself at the beginning is greatly diminished by the end when he fully puts man in his place relative to God.