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Richard Weaver, the political philosopher, once wrote that “ideas have consequences”. And this is a tale.
In June 2001, 20 years ago, a friend of mine and his wife attended a meeting in Washington, DC. It was sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It was co-sponsored by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The theme was “High Computing and Human Effort”. My friend attended on behalf of the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican Embassy in the United States.
He then called the meeting “useful” for two reasons. The first was the meeting’s rich discussion on supercomputers, artificial intelligence and other new technologies. A conference focused on the computer modeling of the physical universe. Another, the ecosystem. Others, social and economic outcomes and biological life processes.
The second reason the meeting was useful, or at least informative, was its weak discussion of what human effort has been. There was little attention to what the human being could mean or imply. Little has been focused on how and why new technological tools might undermine human identity. The agenda was loaded with science, its possibilities and business implications. It was extremely thin on ethics and religion. God was not among the guests. A harmless speech by a retired cleric focused on “the influence of high performance computing on cherished beliefs.”
There is a lesson in my friend’s experience that has stuck with me over the years. Americans, at least until recently, have never shared the European curse of political extremism rooted in utopian fantasies. In America, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, religion has served as a bridle in the mouth of democracy. We value ideas like liberty, law and individual rights. But we are a pragmatic people. We revere our tools. We make tools to solve practical problems and we get great results. It is one of our strengths. We are skeptical of ideologies. We have so far resisted shoving life into any straitjacket of elitist theory. But our strength, our pragmatism, is also our Achilles heel.
My dictionary defines the word tool in some interesting ways. A tool is “an instrument like a hammer, used or worked by hand”. A tool is “a means to an end”. And – more sardonically – a tool is “someone who is used or manipulated by another; a dupe. Humans have been making tools for a very long time. It’s a skill that sets us apart as a species. We think of creatures. We use our brains to expand our physical capacities. Our ideas give birth to tools.
Language itself is a tool. It allows us to understand each other. It also greatly increases our ability to observe, reflect and communicate our experiences of the world. The Roman alphabet has only 26 letters. But we combine these phonetic symbols in millions of ways to express every nuance of pain, joy, love, culture, and genius.
Our talent with tools makes science and technology possible. Science is simply a method of acquiring knowledge about the world. This is what the original Latin word means: Scientia means knowledge. And technology is the application of science to solving real problems like landing on Mars or moving a ton of bricks. The word technology comes from the greek words techne, which stands for craftsmanship or skill, and Tekton, which means carpenter or builder. Simply put, science and technology are the language that shapes the modern world. And only a very stupid person would deny that scientific advancements in medicine, energy, communications, commerce, transportation, and education have greatly improved our lives in countless ways.
And yet, Isaac Asimov, the great biochemist and author of prophetic science fiction, warned that “science acquires knowledge faster than mankind acquires wisdom.” Which is bad news, because while the tendency to forget our limits as creatures is not new in human history, the cost of our forgetting has increased dramatically. We already have the power to turn into radioactive vapor. Very soon we will have the skills to reprogram who we are at the genetic level. We are the first generation in history to have the capacity to change what it means to be human on a biological level. And that power comes exactly when we seem least willing to think morally and modestly about our own power.
To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. It’s an old saying. But this is where we are today as developed societies: science is reshaping our morality and social thinking, while a truly sane culture would have the opposite. Human beings use tools, but by using them our tools use us and also change us. They shape our choices and channel our perceptions. They change the way we think, what we think about and the way we live our lives. However, not all human problems can be solved with a hammer. And not all human needs or desires can be met by the tools of science or technology, as both lack the vocabulary to respect, or even understand, those qualities of the human being that are most important. unique and most valuable, and cannot be measured materially. .
The fatal flaw of our modern idolatry of science is that the scientistic idea of man is both too big and too small. We are less than gods but more than intelligent apes. And the glory that God intends for each of us can only be found in one way, through one man.
It should be remembered that Joseph, the husband of Mary and keeper of Jesus, was a Tekton; a carpenter and builder. Just like Jesus himself. Jesus would have known, from an early age, the sensation of sweat, stone and wood, the prick of shards in his hands and the satisfaction of shaping the raw material for human needs. He would have learned from Joseph a real skill in his work and a respect for the ingenuity of his craft. But he would also have learned the right place of his work and his tools in a truly human life; a life shaped by prayer, study in the synagogue, love for family and people, and respect for the Torah, the word of God. He would also have understood the treasure of silence, and the Scriptures tell us that Jesus sought him.
But that’s not where we’re headed in 2021. Americans love their tools. Tools are ideas made tangible and usable; ideas instrumentalised. Considering our character as a nation, it’s no surprise that the most popular media coverage of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence is positive. Tech news has the sunny quality of well-crafted advertising – which is exactly what it is, as tech society, by its nature, is constantly restless and dissatisfied with limitations of all kinds.
We are sold a bright future with recreation, community, family time, travel, robot servants, and comfortable working from home. Some will come true. Much of it will have the same vaporous unreality as the wasting state in Marxist fantasies. But what is sure to come true is a massive increase in the ingenuity of warfare, surveillance, invasion of privacy, social conditioning, censorship, and genetic experimentation. Because it’s already happening.
Where we can really go is outlined in “The Great Decoupling”, a chapter of Homo Deus (“Man-God”), a book by successful Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari. According to Harari, “Liberals support free markets and democratic elections because they believe that every human being is a unique individual, whose free choices are the ultimate source of authority. But in the decades to come, the logic of our scientific progress will tend to undermine the very beliefs that triggered that progress. “Liberal habits such as democratic elections,” Harari writes, “will become obsolete, as Google will be able to represent even my own political views better than I do.”
At first listen, Harari’s views can easily seem extreme and extravagant. But we laugh at our expense. There is a reason why the New York Times Headed a story about Harari: “Tech CEOs are in love with their main evildoer” and why the titans of the industry follow Harari’s thought with keen interest. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where that could lead if only a fraction of it happened.
Here is the moral of these observations. Next time we hear someone teaching us about “the proper place of science” when it comes to conflicts over bioethics, genetics, big data, and other sensitive issues of human behavior and science. dignity, we would do well to examine who – or what – shaped his ideas and where the ideas lead. Ideas have consequences. When following science, it’s good to first ask yourself where it’s heading, how, and why. As the Scripture says: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose the life that you and your descendants will live ”(Deuteronomy 30:19). We are the subjects, not the objects, of God’s creation. But, of course, we have to believe that and act on it, and then work for our culture to do the same.
Charles J. Chaput, Order of Capuchin Friars Minor, is Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia. This column is an adapted excerpt from his new book, “Things Worth Dying: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living”.
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