Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pope Benedict On The Questions And Choices Raised By Technology

The section of Pope Benedict's encyclical which deals with technology is longer than the three paragraphs I have extracted below. I think these paragraphs make his basic case, with the others delineating specific examples of what he writes here. In the interests of commentary and readability, I am going to break up these three extensive paragraphs. The italics with in the text are Pope Benedict's, the sentences in bold type face are my emphasis.

70. Technological development can give rise to the idea that technology is self-sufficient when too much attention is given to the “how” questions, and not enough to the many “why” questions underlying human activity. For this reason technology can appear ambivalent. (Operative for me is that while technology can appear ambivalent, but it is not ambivalent at it's core. The 'why' questions are critically important precisely because it's people who use technology, and people are not value free.)

Produced through human creativity as a tool of personal freedom, technology can be understood as a manifestation of absolute freedom, the freedom that seeks to prescind from the limits inherent in things. The process of globalization could replace ideologies with technology[152], allowing the latter to become an ideological power that threatens to confine us within an a priori that holds us back from encountering being and truth. Were that to happen, we would all know, evaluate and make decisions about our life situations from within a technocratic cultural perspective to which we would belong structurally, without ever being able to discover a meaning that is not of our own making. (One of the clearest example of this is the misuse of media technology, which Benedict deals with in paragraph 73 of this encyclical.)

The “technical” worldview that follows from this vision is now so dominant that truth has come to be seen as coinciding with the possible. But when the sole criterion of truth is efficiency and utility, development is automatically denied. (Efficiency and utility have their place, but when pursued to for their own sake, man loses his own place.)

True development does not consist primarily in “doing”. The key to development is a mind capable of thinking in technological terms and grasping the fully human meaning of human activities, within the context of the holistic meaning of the individual's being.

Even when we work through satellites or through remote electronic impulses, our actions always remain human, an expression of our responsible freedom. Technology is highly attractive because it draws us out of our physical limitations and broadens our horizon. But human freedom is authentic only when it responds to the fascination of technology with decisions that are the fruit of moral responsibility. Hence the pressing need for formation in an ethically responsible use of technology. Moving beyond the fascination that technology exerts, we must reappropriate the true meaning of freedom, which is not an intoxication with total autonomy, but a response to the call of being, beginning with our own personal being.

71. This deviation from solid humanistic principles that a technical mindset can produce is seen today in certain technological applications in the fields of development and peace. Often the development of peoples is considered a matter of financial engineering, the freeing up of markets, the removal of tariffs, investment in production, and institutional reforms — in other words, a purely technical matter. (These issues are never purely technical because, as Benedict points out, the technological or engineering approaches serve first a particular philisophical mindset. No amount of technological wizardry should be allowed to cloud this fundamental fact.)

All these factors are of great importance, but we have to ask why technical choices made thus far have yielded rather mixed results. We need to think hard about the cause. Development will never be fully guaranteed through automatic or impersonal forces, whether they derive from the market or from international politics. Development is impossible without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finely attuned to the requirements of the common good. (People who see that their fellow humans are more than votes and more than consumers, more than ends to their own means.)

Both professional competence and moral consistency are necessary. When technology is allowed to take over, the result is confusion between ends and means, such that the sole criterion for action in business is thought to be the maximization of profit, in politics the consolidation of power, and in science the findings of research. Often, underneath the intricacies of economic, financial and political interconnections, there remain misunderstandings, hardships and injustice. The flow of technological know-how increases, but it is those in possession of it who benefit, while the situation on the ground for the peoples who live in its shadow remains unchanged: for them there is little chance of emancipation. (I think the point that Benedict is making here is that once one falls into the technological world view one begins to see people as nouns, not 'beings'. Things to be used, things to be controlled, things to be examined, problems to be solved.)

Following these two paragraphs, Benedict develops this thinking further with regard to the media, and biological research with heavy emphasis on the apparent amorality of reproductive technologies and end of life issues. He puts forth the idea that "the conscience is simply invited to take note of technological possibilities." There's a lot of truth in that observation. He follows this up with concerns about the splitting of man's spiritual self from his material self, as the technological mind set can not account for the mysterious spiritual side of man.

Benedict then ends this section on technology with the following paragraph which serves also as the introduction to his conclusion:

77. The supremacy of technology tends to prevent people from recognizing anything that cannot be explained in terms of matter alone. Yet everyone experiences the many immaterial and spiritual dimensions of life. Knowing is not simply a material act, since the object that is known always conceals something beyond the empirical datum.

All our knowledge, even the most simple, is always a minor miracle, since it can never be fully explained by the material instruments that we apply to it. In every truth there is something more than we would have expected, in the love that we receive there is always an element that surprises us. We should never cease to marvel at these things. In all knowledge and in every act of love the human soul experiences something “over and above”, which seems very much like a gift that we receive, or a height to which we are raised. The development of individuals and peoples is likewise located on a height, if we consider the spiritual dimension that must be present if such development is to be authentic. It requires new eyes and a new heart, capable of rising above a materialistic vision of human events, capable of glimpsing in development the “beyond” that technology cannot give. By following this path, it is possible to pursue the integral human development that takes its direction from the driving force of charity in truth.


I'm not surprised that Benedict devoted so many words to the conflicts between a technological mindset and the idea of man progressing in wisdom and knowledge. I think the points he makes in this section are the really prophetic aspects of this encyclical. I also know they aren't particularly new observations. It may just be that they are timely observations.

The technological mindset is an outgrowth of Newtonian physics and the scientific method. It tends to be reductionist in outlook rather than expansive. Spirituality moves in the opposite direction. It's expansive and inclusive, reflecting on the why, rather than the how. It doesn't operate like Newtonian physics in that it doesn't necessarily give reproducible answers. Spirituality is pretty personal and idiosyncratic, and because of that, it's a world view that spawns creativity, not conformity or reproducibility. It allows the freedom to think new thoughts and 'see' new things into being.

Technological breakthroughs would not exist without mankind's capacity for creative thought.
We may know how neurons fire to produce the creative thought, but we are blind as to the why's of the generation of the thought. Something is going on beyond our capacity to reduce thought to it's constituent components. I think we sometimes lose site of the simple fact we are far more than predictable constituent components. We find ourselves in conflict with our need to control vs our need to create.

Like Benedict I firmly believe if we approach human problem solving from a strictly technological or engineering model we are doomed to failure. Humanity, as either individuals or social communities, does not lend itself to reductionist models. Something more is always going on, will always raise it's head, will not have been predicted. Rather than fearing or trying to control that unpredictability, it should be celebrated, because without it there is no progress.

It seems to me humanity is at a cross roads. We can sell our souls to the technology that merely mirrors our innate spiritual capacities (and 95% of the time is out of our control because it is dependant on energy delivery systems), or we can promote individual spiritual progress which is always at our choice. We can take the freedom of the path of the mystic, or the inbuilt dependence of the technological path. In the one case technology serves the path, in the other technology controls the path. One leads to true species advancement, and one leads to counterfeit illusions of advancement. The choice is ours.


  1. Truly amazing post - thank you so much for this. Your insights are on as far as I am concerned. I do think these are some truly essential points from the document.

  2. Thanks Fran. I knew that most of the commentary would deal with other chapters in this encyclical, but I personally have gotten too many messages in meditation about the real danger of humanity being overwhelmed by a technological mindset.

    In fact one message specifically mentioned the problem with the technological mindset was it's emphasis on utility and efficiency. It is the antithesis of the process of fumbling through to spiritual progress. Whether it's convenient or not, God's chosen path for mankind is free choice. Technological conformity is too easily used as a narcotic which deadens one's capacity to make informed choices. Benedict got this right on.

    Anyway, I about fell off my chair when I read virtually verbatim the exact message I had received in this encyclical. I now have a very warm spot in my heart for Benedict.