Laudato Si’ — On Questions of Technology

Pope Francis’ new encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, will, is the most thorough document of the Catholic church on the environment to date. The structure of the Encyclical is perhaps worth calling to mind at the outset. It’s noted here:


Chapter 1: What is Happening to Our Common Home?

Chapter 2: The Gospel of Creation

Chapter 3: The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis

Chapter 4: Integral Ecology

Chapter 5: Lines of Approach and Action

Chapter 6: Ecological Education and Spirituality

Rather than going through chapter by chapter, I have decided to focus on a few of the main issue areas as I blog over the next couple weeks. I will start with an analysis of some of the ideas in the encyclical of relevance to philosophy of technology, largely just providing the descriptive narrative of the text here, but reorganizing it to highlight the relationship to technology concerns. The document takes a stance on six views of great significance to current thought on the social repercussions of technology. 1) The encyclical condemns a predominant instrumentalist logic of a technocratic worldview, however implicating not only technological instrumentalism but also market fundamentalism. 2) Despite the criticism of the dominant technocratic paradigm, the encyclical does not propose eco-primitivism, but states a strong appreciation of the values that science and technology contribute to human life and the creativity possible in these areas. This appreciation is quite far reaching. 3) The encyclical even implies that humans are by nature technological. 4) The text does reject the view that technologies are neutral, but maintains instead that technologies affect our way of thinking about and dealing with the world and one another. Technologies in short are viewed as value-laden, not value-neutral. As a result moral guidance is needed in developing technologies 5) As an alternative to the dominant technocratic and Capitalist logic, the text proposes an integral ecology based on contemplation and a spiritual appreciation of the world and calls for an ecological education and spiritual conversion. Much more will be said about this in a follow-up post. 6) While viewing such a spiritual renewal as vital, the encyclical maintains that it is an insufficient condition for the needed changes in our behavior toward nature. Changes in our political systems and forms of business are also vitally needed.

1.1 The technocratic paradigm

The encyclical continually summons us to reject the view of nature and of humans that is dominant under the scientific-technological framework. This is a persistent theme, but comes out perhaps most clearly in Section 2 of Chapter three, which examines “The Globalization and the Technocratic Paradigm.” In the opening paragraph, the focus is on the now dominant technocratic paradigm, according to which nature is denied a form, of which we must take account. Instead, nature is approached as formless resource that can be bent to our will and manipulated as we please.

1.2 The world as formless matter

In the words of the encyclical, according to prevailing view “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.” (par. 106).

Philosophers of course will see some roots of this in Descartes, who views the material world as mere spiritless extension, and in the Kantian turn, which denies form to the “multifarious stuff” of reality and views the rational mind (typically viewed as the human mind) as imposing form upon this stuff. In much late 19th and 20th century philosophy, while the universality of this human categorization framework is denied, the view is retained that we are not reckoning with a world that possesses forms, but we are imposing them (albeit with cultural and social difference in the forms imposed). This results in insights, but also considerable distortions. The encyclical implicitly calls for a return to a respect of some agency in nature.

1.3 The world as a repository of resources

The encyclical also links the view of the earth as unformed material to the perspective that it a mere repository of unlimited resources for our technological and economic exploitation, based on a relationship not of cooperation but of confrontation between nature and the extractor of its resources. Among other things, this provides a basis for the distorted economic view of unlimited growth.

The recurring view expressed in the encyclical is that this distorted worldview results in an especially serious problem when this paradigm from science and technology becomes dominant form of understanding of all spheres of human life. (par. 107). Precisely such a technological view of life has become integral to current lives and has colonized all dimensions of life, bringing them under its “iron-clad logic.” This in the end diminishes human freedom and creativity (par. 108).[1]

2.1 The fragmentation of knowledge

One of the repercussions of this technocratic logic is the fragmentation of knowledge. Philosophy and social ethics can help to cultivate a more holistic view of the interrelationships between the diverse spheres of life, but the type of holism that is able to be developed in in these disciplines is rarely cultivated (par. 110). Instead, the same technocratic paradigm dominant in creating the ecological problems is used to address the ecological problems in a fragmented, piecemeal fashion (par. 111).

2.2 An alternative view of progress

With a broader vision, Francis proposes it is possible to direct technology. Ultimately we are not chained to a technocratic determinism (par. 112). The encyclical suggests freedom that can provide for a different view of progress than that of the technocratic framework. “We can put [technology] at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (par. 112). This implies a social world developing in line with not only a more ethical framework, but also a more aesthetic one, possible for example “when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it” (par. 112). This framework, which is viewed as existing but untapped, holds out the possibility of a more “authentic” way of life (par. 112).

3.1 Homo technologicus

Though acutely critical of a technocratic paradigm the noted views indicate already that the encyclical does not for all that embrace techno-primitivism. In fact, the encyclical affirms that humans are technological by nature, indicating that we have always modified nature and by so doing gradually “overcome material limitations” (par. 103). Indeed, human interventions are recognized to have been continual and to have been concomitant biological mutations (par. 133). This has brought much that is advantageous for humans.

3.2 Technology and labor

Another relationship to technology showing it integral to human history is apparent in the references to labor in the encyclical. With reference to the biblical Eden, the encyclical highlights that man was placed in the garden not merely to enjoy its fruits but to “till” the soil. Human cultivate and make the earth fruitful (par. 124). The labor is not restricted to manual work, but concerns “any activity involving a modification of existing reality…” (par. 125). This involves us in a relationship with a reality beyond ourselves. St. Francis and Charles de Foucauld are upheld as pointing to an ideal of labor that is “rich and balanced” (par. 126), the former approaching it with “awe-filled contemplation” (par. 126) reminiscent of now more mainstream conversation of “mindfulness” in labor.

“Work should be the setting for … rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God” (par. 127). Humans are to fulfill themselves in labor, consequently the goal is not for technologies to replace work. Instead, “the broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work” (par. 128). The encyclical expresses concern that human labor is being replaced by technologies for short-term profits; indeed the tendency is viewed as “bad business for society” (par. 128).

3.3 On the creativity of science and technology

Science and technology are consistently both viewed, in alignment with John Paul II, as “wonderful products of a God-given human creativity” (par. 103). Technology facilitates a better life for humans (serving as “an important means of improving the quality of human life”) (par. 103). It also allows for unique creations of beauty: “Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper? Valuable works of art and music now make use of new technologies. So, in the beauty intended by the one who uses new technical instruments and in the contemplation of such beauty, a quantum leap occurs, resulting in a fulfilment which is uniquely human” (par. 103).

3.4 On the power and risks of technology

This knowledge of technology, along with the proper economic resources, is a source of enormous power. It allows “an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world” (par. 104). On the negative side however, there are enormous risks associated with technologies, and there is no assurance of the wise use of technology, as the uses of nuclear weapons in the 20th century attest, as well as the abuses of technology in the hands of totalitarian regimes. These risks, the encyclical notes, are heightened for “a small part of humanity” to have such power (par. 104).

3.5 On Promethianism and authentic freedom

In light of the risks of technology, the document warns of the fundamental error of Promethianism, a belief that technological developments are in fact always a good thing. As in other ages, in our own, we may be apt to a blindness of our own limitations. In our case, we at present lack the wisdom to wisely use the power that we have, and we even lack a full conscious freedom of use. “Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint” (par. 105).

3.6 On legitimate interventions into nature and the need for moral guidance

Human intervention into nature and human uses of nature must be guided by moral considerations. In light of the accelerated speed of the changes we now make to nature (over and above those that have historically and slowly altered species), the risks and dangers associated with present GM are noted. Genetic modification is not condemned, but precaution and honest dialogue including all those concerned is recommended. “Discussions are needed in which all those directly or indirectly affected (farmers, consumers, civil authorities, scientists, seed producers, people living near fumigated fields, and others) can make known their problems and concerns, and have access to adequate and reliable information in order to make decisions for the common good, present and future” (par. 135).

So, too, interventions in some ways that instrumentalizes animals (such as animal testing) are maintained to be acceptable as long as these clearly promote human well-being. But there is a precautionary note: “human power has limits” (par. 130). Quoting the Catechism, the encyclical affirms “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly” (par. 130). Not only must respect for animals continually be taken into consideration, so must concerns for ecological integrity.

3.7 On the blindness of the technocratic worldview

One of the great risks of the technocratic worldview is that it fails to appreciate the integral relationships between the various domains of life. Quoting John Paul II, the encyclical acknowledges the complexity of the earth system that evades a technocratic logic: “we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention to the consequences of such interference in other areas” (par. 131). While this does not mean that those involved in science and technology cannot intervene into nature in creative ways, it does require a constant vigilance: “We need constantly to rethink the goals, effects, overall context and ethical limits of this human activity, which is a form of power involving considerable risks” (par. 131). The guiding principle proposed does pose problems given the limits of human knowledge: “Any legitimate intervention will act on nature only in order “to favour its development in its own line, that of creation, as intended by God” (par. 132).

The chapter on the human roots of the ecological crisis ends with the following warning: “when technology disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit. As we have seen in this chapter, a technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power” (par. 136).

4.1 On the techno-neutrality thesis

While recognizing that technologies can be used for good or ill, the encyclical still rejects that classical technological neutralist thesis, that is, the view that technologies are neither good nor bad, but only their uses are. Instead it proposes that they are coded to affect human understanding and the social world. “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” (chapter 3, par. 107; chapter 3 of the text especially focuses on issues of technology).

4.2 On a wiser use of technology

The call in light of this is for the development of a cultural framework that leads to a wiser creation of technologies, sensitive to how these shape our own understanding and our interaction with one another and nature. The calls for a moral guidance of technologies are clearly stated throughout the text. The call is not to a “return to the stoneage” but to a recognition of the value-laden character and the need to direct science and technology. “Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes” (par. 114). The call is to approach this reality from a different perspective, one that recovers the “values and great goals swept away by our unrestrained illusions of grandeur” (par. 114).[2]

5.1 An alternative to the technocratic paradigm

The document proposes “integral ecology” (chapter 4) as an alternative perspective that starkly contrasts to the reductive, fragmented and ultimately ignorant worldview propagated by the dominant techno-scientific paradigm. “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality” (par. 138). The “integral ecology” proposed that respects not only biological ecology, but the “human and social dimensions” of ecology. The human and natural world are depicted as interrelated to one another and rooted in and related to the transcendent.

5.2 An ecological spirituality

One final great focus of the encyclical is on ecological education and spirituality (chapter 6). Again, indicating the problems with the technocratic and economic logic, Francis references the work of Romano Guardini who writes of the dramatic effect of technics upon human understanding and life: “The gadgets and technics forced upon [people] by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself. To either a greater or lesser degree mass man is convinced that his conformity is both reasonable and just” (par. 202).

But we are capable of rising above ourselves, imprinted as we are by present dominant view, and move toward an “authentic freedom” (par. 205). The change needed will not be achieved with a top-down approach. Rather, individuals, who begin to reform their own lives can lead to structural change. Part of the moral framework called for refers back to ideas express by Benedict XVI in calls for a revived understanding of consumption and shopping as a moral act, one which has the potential to pressure businesses to change their models and adopt more environmentally responsible production and fairer policies. Quoting Benedict, he notes, “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act” (par. 206). Quoting John Paul II, he again affirms: “the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle” (par. 206). Indeed, the onus for change falls not only on institutions, but also on individuals. “An awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits” (par. 209).

5.3 An ecological education

While an ecological education has traditionally conveyed knowledge of science, it also increasingly includes a critique of the reductionist approach of modern thought. In Francis’ vision: “Environmental education should facilitate making the leap towards the transcendent which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning. It needs educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care” (par. 210). At the same time the call is for an education that moves beyond the merely academic and that inculcates a move to a change in lifestyle. “A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle” (par. 211). The education aims at changing culture in a way that facilitates lasting institutional changes. Though the phrase is not invoked, this means in some radical sense that the personal is the political. Everything from recycling to energy reducing practices, to tree planting can have a positive effect. “We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread” (par. 212).

This education occurs in schools, in churches, at home. The role of aesthetic education should also not be overlooked. “By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple” (par. 213).

5.4 A conversion of the heart

For the Christian, or theists, as well as Buddhists (though no direct reference is made to them) this also demands a spiritual conversion. Quoting the Australian bishops, Francis affirms: “To achieve such reconciliation, we must examine our lives and acknowledge the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act. We need to experience a conversion, or change of heart” (par. 219). Such individual conversion and education is necessary but not sufficient for the change needed. It must be linked to community conversion (par. 219) and, as the encyclical repeatedly notes, changes in economic and political institutions. Yet this is rooted in love: “Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also ‘macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones’” (Benedict XVI) (par. 231).

5.4 A call to contemplation and simplicity

The call for a renewal of contemplation and simplicity is essential. Paragraph 222 is quoted here in its entirety: “Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more’. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.”

5.5 The integrity of human life

In line with this view of integral ecology, “it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values” (par. 224). More explicitly: “An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us, whose presence “must not be contrived but found, uncovered” (par. 225). For the Christian this issues into a sacramental vision. “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things. Saint Bonaventure teaches us that “contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace within our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creatures outside ourselves” (par. 233).

While explicit involvement with politics in its traditional sense is not viewed as necessary, a concern for the public and the cultivation of a culture of care is. “Not everyone is called to engage directly in political life. Society is also enriched by a countless array of organizations which work to promote the common good and to defend the environment, whether natural or urban. Some, for example, show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone. Around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges. Thus, a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism. These actions cultivate a shared identity, with a story which can be remembered and handed on. In this way, the world, and the quality of life of the poorest, are cared for, with a sense of solidarity which is at the same time aware that we live in a common home which God has entrusted to us. These community actions, when they express self-giving love, can also become intense spiritual experiences” (par. 232).

6.1 The insufficiency of an individualistic spiritual conversion

The text strongly advocates individual changes in attitude and approaching the world with a sense of awe, along with change to individual habits, but clearly states that such attitudinal and individual changes to habit are insufficient and that even where mental shifts can be seen, unsustainable “habits of consumption” remain that have to be overcome (par. 55). Fundamental change will involve reforms to the local, national, and global economic and political orders.

The progress required calls also for dialogue and transparency in decision-making (a topic to which section 3 of chapter 5 is devoted). All stakeholders are to be included in the decision-making, which should be approached with honesty. Indeed the document even calls for consensus among such stakeholders (par. 183). The encyclical also proposes that a lack of full information should not be seen as providing sanction for action. Rather, the precautionary principle, adopted generally by the UN on these issues, should be adopted. This reverses the burden of proof, not placing at the forefront the need to show the danger but the need to show the safety of a determinant course of action or policy suggestion (par. 186).

[1] The technocratic paradigm also dominates the economy, as market forces that aim only at profits are presumed to be able to resolve all ills—whether those of material deprivation or of environmental concern. While robust theoretical defenses of this view are not common, it is the operational logic of the market, dominated by considerations of financers who find that concerns for profit maximization are enough (par. 109).

[2] Section 3 of chapter 3 links the discussion of technocratic view to anthropocentrism. Quoting Romano Gaurdini, the encyclical repeats earlier points about the technocratic framing of reality: “the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference” (par. 115). But it links these to antropcentrism, which the document states prizes “technical thought over reality” (par. 115). Both the anthropocentric and technocratic framework result in a distortion of reality, a failure to understand the proper place of the human in the universe. This false view was also reflected in an earlier Christian anthropology in need of changing, which focused on the “domination” over nature rather than “responsible stewardship” of it. (par. 116).

Anthropocentrism is indicative of a faulty anthropology. A pretense of absolute dominion of the human has resulted in disregarding the voice of nature, and increasingly even of other humans (par. 117). However, an adequate anthropology—responsive to nature—will not result in species egalitarianism anymore than the disregard for the nonhuman (par. 117). The encyclical calls for a “renewal of humanity,” maintaining that an adequate anthropology that accompanies that is needed for ecology (par. 118). The Christian anthropology embraced calls for recognizing the special character of the human who is open to and I-thou relationship both with other humans and with God. The alternative locks us into relationship of “stifling immanence” (par. 119).

Share Post :

Leave a Reply