Mr. Brian Jones

In his encyclical letter, Laudato Si, Pope Francis rightly criticized a disordered, yet essential feature of contemporary culture and democratic societies. This essential characteristic is what he calls the “technocratic paradigm.” In describing this way of thinking, and how it effects the way we view ourselves, and our relation to other persons and nature, Pope Francis says the following:

The basic problem goes even deeper: it 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. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational (#106).

While there is much that can be said in regards to this passage, it is important to view it within the context of a battle regarding the history of ideas. In other words, the technocratic paradigm must be understood as having its deeper roots in the reversal (perhaps one could say the destruction) of Aristotle’s differentiation of nature and art. Exploring this point is not only vital for understanding Francis’ “technocratic paradigm,” but also sheds light on many contemporary social, political, and cultural issues.

Aristotle’s understanding of physics and metaphysics was based upon the distinction between nature and an artifact. For Aristotle, there were a number of essential differences that help to delineate something as the work of nature or as a thing of art. First, a natural thing possesses a certain form or essence that it has received from without, but which is intrinsically linked with the kind of thing that it is. In other words, a dog has received the form “dog” from nature, but its form is such that it has a necessary unity and oneness that is entirely its own. Along with this is an additional fact about natural things. Due to the unity and oneness of its form that is uniquely its own, this gives direction and aim to the thing’s various purposes and reason for existing in the first place. The essence of a natural thing and its teleology is not the result of human will or invention, but of what nature has given.

In contrast with a natural thing is that of an artifact. An artifact, like a natural thing, does contain an essence that has been given to it from without. However, the form that an artifact contains only belongs to it in an accidental way. The very construction and organization of an artifact is grounded in the fact that it is merely a collection of aggregate parts that have been joined together by the artist. As such, something that is the result of art does not possess its form in a unified, necessary, and whole way like a natural thing does. An additional difference that distinguishes art from nature is that the artifact was created by human will; it is not a given that is received, but something actively put into a formless collection of things by a human agent.

For Aristotle, and the ancient and medieval tradition as a whole, these truths coalesce into the conclusion that “art imitates nature.” In order for something to be properly called “art” or an “artifact,” entails that it not lose sight of the fact that it presupposes a natural order not of one’s own making. However, at the root of modern science and politics is precisely this reversal. Instead of “art imitating nature,” art now seeks to replace nature. What this means, among other things, is that now art merely reflects an order that is human, whose ends and purposes are presupposed to only that of the artist himself.

This “setting of the stage” now brings us back to Pope Francis and his notion of the “technocratic paradigm.” Modern science has rejected the Aristotelian doctrine that the aim of science is to discover the form or nature of what things are. Modern science has exchanged knowledge of nature with the ability to manipulate it for the sake of greater power and dominance. This is precisely the stated goal of Francis Bacon’s New Organon. Knowledge is reduced to engineering and coercion. In the same way, this is how Pope Francis portrays the modern science, which is understood as  “a technique of possession, mastery and transformation.” For Pope Francis, without seeing nature as “form,” it eventually succumbs to domination and procedural control. In this light, the relationship between human beings and nature is more vividly portrayed as one of antagonism, where “human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.” Much of the extreme environmentalism today is grounded in precisely this vision of human beings and nature as enemies.

Let me draw these reflections to a close by briefly mentioning the import of Francis’ view here. The fundamental concern for Francis regards the end goal of the “technocratic paradigm,” which he says is

to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build (#107).

We are no longer “in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves” (#106). Since modernity has succeeded in overturning the orders of nature and art, it is inevitable that the technocratic paradigm becomes an “epistemological” one. Our penultimate questions are not, what is this thing, but rather, what is the use of this thing. Instead of finding joy in the limits and goodness of nature, we are constantly overwhelmed and anxious about our technological progress and the fact that we understand ourselves and the world in technological and cosmopolitan terms. Such a condition, according to Pope Francis, is not one rooted in the truth and freedom for which we were made. Rather, the inner logic and ontological foundations of the technocratic paradigm have led to “a loss of the purpose of life and of community living (#110)” that seems to so often pervade the lives of contemporary American citizens. To Francis’ credit, he has rightly shown that the rise of the “technocratic paradigm” can never be a foundation for civil society and a full human life. In fact, it breeds a destructive culture of dominance and manipulation that not only corrupts nature, but only further exacerbates the truth of our feeling and experiencing ourselves as “lost in the cosmos.”

02 20 2017
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